Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass) last week was publicly asked an acutely personal (some would say jarring) question, which neither he, nor anyone else for that matter, could possibly answer with certainty.

The question was posed while Kennedy was appearing before the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He was asked: "Senator, 10 years after Chappaquiddick, do you think the American people have forgotten or forgiven-or not?"

Any answer, to a large degree, would have to be a guess. Kennedy's reply was, "It's up to the people. I hope they make a judgment based on the total record. I'd certainly expect that."

The questioner thought it was "not much of an answer," and that the senator "ought to work out a better one." Actually, there is a better answer, for American history is on Kennedy's side, but it would be self-serving for the senator to expound it himself. There is nothing, however, to prevent his friends and backers from pointing out that in the long course of U.S. history, the consistent tendency of American citizens has been to forgive and forget.

It has been demonstrated over and over that the American people are simply not persistent bitter-end haters. It has always been an attractive national characteristic-one that shows up not only in respect to individuals, but to other nations that from time to time have gravely alienated us.

This can be traced back to the beginning of the republic. Despite the heavy cost of the Revolutionary War with England, and the later burning of our capital in the 1814 conflict with the British, Amercians let bygones be bygones, even to the extent of Britain becoming and remaining our closest ally.

That has been the rule rather than the exception. It's hard to remember now that not so many years ago both Germany and Japan were our fiercest enemies in the greatest war of all time, but today we count them among our best friends.

When it comes to indivduals, especially famous public figures, Americans historically have generally embraced the philosophy that "to err is human, to forgive divine." Ted Kennedy's older brother, former President John F. Kennedy, readily acknowledged that the worst mistake he ever made was the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, but afterward he rose to new heights in the public-opinion polls.

Richard Nixon's notorious "slush fund" nearly cost him the vice presidency in 1952, but in spite of that, and his record of character assassinations in early contests for the House and Senate, the voters again forgave and forgot. Nixon carried 49 out of 50 states in 1972.

During World War II there was continuous publicity and whispering about Gen. Eisenhower and his personal aide, the young and comely Kay Summersby, but efforts to exploit the gossip, against Ike when he ran for the presidency in 1952 failed dismally. The public was no longer interested.

In the 1884 presidental race, Grover Cleveland won the White House despite charges of leading a dissolute private life and fathering an illegitimate child years before. Moreover, when drafted for the Civil War, Cleveland had hired a substitute to take his place in the army. Neverthless, the voters treated all this as water over the dam.

Looking back, it's difficult to recall any presidential action that shocked the American people more than Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon, yet only a couple of years later, Ford came within a whisker of defeating Jimmy Carter.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence that the public, in large measure, has forgotten or forgiven Chappaquiddick, is the way Kennedy's personal popularity continues to soar in all the polls, even in the face of his opposition to the so-called "conservative trend" that has reputedly seized the nation.

If, as some insist, Kennedy "has become the authentic voice of the left in America," and if the left is "discredited and disheartened," how is it the young senator can overcome such a seeming handicap unless his personal standing has now become so exalted as to transcend other considerations? Or could it be that the conservative swing is mainly a myth?

When the liberal Kennedy is paired against the conservative Carter, the latest national Harris poll shows the former beating the president by 63 to 32 percent. Local polls are little different. The most recent Iowa survey gives Kennedy 40 percent, Carter 17 percent and Gov. Jerry Brown 12 percent.

It's much the same when Kennedy is paired against Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, the conservative front-runners for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. The latest Gallup poll on the subject shows Kennedy beating Ford by 57 to 40 percent, and beating Reagan by an even bigger margin, 59 to 36 percent. All of which seems to confirm a Time magazine poll reporting that, with most voters, Chappaquiddick is no longer a factor of importance.