We have -- truly -- lost count of the number of times that we and others e said goodbye to Edward M. Kennedy as a prospective candidate in a presidential election. It is interesting, this phenomenon: Sen. Kennedy's political career has been characterized by 1)endless speculation -- worried or hopeful -- that he would run and 2)repeated removals of himself from the race and/or refusals to heed the desperate importunings of others that he run. Starting with the election of 1968, except for his campaign in 1980, this has been the case.

And yet, through most of the past two decades his has been the Democratic name to reckon with. He has been the perpetual possibility, the uncertain presence -- somewhere -- that could alter the whole game. Nobody is yet or ever will be a hundred percent certain that he will not, at any given moment, get into the fray -- even now. This is his political curse and his blessing. It is a blessing in that it provides him, should he ever want it, with an instant access to presidential politics and a guarantee of all but smothering press coverage that others would kill for. It is a curse in that it has fixed him in the public mind in a particular way, so that his every act is weighed against a potential candidacy and he is seen, eternally, as almost a fixed figure in a set political play. He is the Younger Brother -- still -- charged somehow with reclaiming and redeeming the family heritage that was abducted by tragedy.

It is always startling and somewhat confusing to read, as we have been in the past several days, that the stepping aside of Edward Kennedy will clear the way for younger contenders, for a new generation. This in itself is tribute to the sturdiness of the fixed public image that has done him so much career good and harm over the years. For Sen. Kennedy, at 53 much older than any of his brothers lived to be, retains the political persona of a young man -- a challenger, not an incumbent; a disturber of the settled political order; someone whose time is yet to come. He is, in cold fact, a contemporary of a large body of other political persons who have been around the national scene, as he has, for some 20 years. But he never seems quite of them. In an odd way, he is a man without a political generation, or at least a man apart from his own.

We have had our disagreements with Mr. Kennedy over the years on a number of subjects, but we also believe that he has been a unique and invaluable voice for much that is right in the Democratic Party and an insistent goad to much that is good in the Senate. We suspect we are not the only ones who believe that these interests will be served, not hindered, by the senator's latest decision and who hope that decision will have the beneficial and liberating effect he intends on his capacity to get things done in the Senate.