In 1999, when I expect to be reporting on shuffleboard tournaments in someplace like Sun City, I'm sure I'll turn on television one day to watch Sen. Edward Kennedy announce once again whether he will or will not seek the presidency the next year.
I'll turn to my friend, Harry, and cackle, "I remember the first six times Teddy made his announcement. I was right there watching and . . . " And Old Harry will whip his wheelchair into motion and shout over his shoulder, "Don't start that boring story again!"
The Kennedy Saga is Washington's favorite soap opera. Sure, Kennedy is a serious senator. I know that. But so is Lloyd Bentsen Jr., of Texas, who also ran for the Democratic nomination once and lost. When Bentsen told reporters last week that he wasn't going to run for president in 1984, either, it made news only in Texas.
The reason is that Bentsen's extracurricular life has not been one long soap opera. When television news did its mini-biographies of Kennedy last week, you could see all the staples of daytime TV dramas: marriages and funerals, hospital and courtroom confrontations, plane crashes, torrid romances, tumultuous crowds, stirring speeches and, looming over it all, the misty vision of the White House.
Because Kennedy has staged these will-he- won't-he shows with such frequency since 1968, there is getting to be quite a lot of literature on the subject. Candidly, it is not great journalism.
In 1974, when Kennedy took himself out of consideration for the 1976 race, The Post did the requisite analysis piece. My name was not on it, but that was pure good luck. I would have written the same nonsense. I did this year.
Do you know who was going to be the main beneficiary of Kennedy's withdrawal in 1974? One Walter Mondale, then a Minnesota senator. Mondale followed Kennedy out the exit door from the presidential race a few months later.
If Mondale didn't pick up the Kennedy vote, the story said, Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington certainly would. Well, Jackson won the Massachusetts primary in 1976, so the story wasn't entirely wrong. But that was about all he won.
You know, of course, whose name does not appear anywhere in that 1974 analysis: James Earl Carter Jr., of Plains, Ga. Not a mention.
With a track record like that, we have a lot of room for modesty about our guesses on the fallout from the latest Kennedy withdrawal. The stories saying Mondale and Sen. John Glenn of Ohio now move up in the betting may look as foolish as the 1974 stories touting it as a boon to Mondale and Jackson.
Sometimes, we overlook the obvious. Across the country, Kennedy has had a firm base of about 30 percent of the Democratic voters. Last week that percentage was mentioned, independently, by the Democratic chairmen of Iowa and New Hampshire, the earliest caucus and primary states, as a measure of the core Kennedy vote in their states. That much of the vote is up for grabs, they said, and is likely to scatter.
But Kennedy had a solid hold on two constituencies: Massachusetts and the minorities. And that is where someone may move in.
Massachusetts is likely to favor a labor-liberal Democrat, a no-nonsense, bread-and-butter man like Mondale. But what about the blacks?
The point that all of us missed in 1974 was that, absent Kennedy, a non-racist southerner could make a real play for the black vote. That is what Carter did, and his appeal to blacks was his crucial advantage in winning the critical primaries in Florida and Pennsylvania.
In 1982, blacks turned out in record numbers and earned an even more important place in the Democratic coalition. And, once again, there are southern candidates well positioned to bid for their support.
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, despite a segregationist past, worked with the late Robert F. Kennedy in launching food programs for black youngsters, and just recently named the first black ever to hold a top staff position on a Senate committee.
Former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew is the man who stood up to George Wallace and segregationist sentiment in his state in campaigning against anti-busing referenda during the 1972 Florida primary.
Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, one of those "reassessing" after Kennedy's announcement, was the only southerner in the Senate this year to vote against the move to limit the Supreme Court's authority on school desegregation cases.
Could it happen again that a southerner -- not a northern liberal or moderate -- moves in to fill the Kennedy vacuum by grabbing the black vote?
I don't know. But repetition is the secret of the soap operas, and this Kennedy story is definitely a soap opera.