Sen. Edward Kennedy, in the speech he made to reaffirm his presidential candidacy, face the realities and said what he had to say. Perhaps his fortunes will now take wing. If not, which seems more likely, he can go down honorably, as the keeper of a certain conscience.

Something strange, even weird, has marked his campaign from the outset. The senator entered the lists by a process rare in politics and hard to describe. He did not come forward asserting himself in the fashion of the hungrey seeker after power. Instead, a part of the nation, bewildered and in despair, gathered itself unto him. He did not so much declare his candidacy as assent to his fate.

For that reason, he and many fo his associates at first misjudged the difficulty of running against a sittling president from the same party. They expected Jimmy Carter to crumble under the pressure of events.

The need to articulate a theme for the senator's campaign also escaped their attention. The true reason behind the candidacy was not a one-liner but a life, a family and a mystique. Pressing for more detail was like expecting Gen. de Gaulle to define with precision his "certain idea of france."

Nor did the senator and his staff quickly organize in a hierarchy of priorities the multitude of positions accumulated over the years. The patriotism that found expression and consistent support for this country's friends abroad was not aligned with sympathy. for underdogs. The stance taken on behalf of New England for holding down the price of fuel oil never met the position asserted on behalf of the country for deregulation of airlines. Kennedy failed to make a smooth and swift transition from the senatorial to the presidential perspective.

From those early blunders the pace of events afforded no escape. Before the candidacy was well launched, the embassy in Tehran was seized and the hostages taken. Inept attempts to question the actions that led the United States to that mess were easily dismissed by the White House and the State Department.

Just as the failure of the president's effort to spring the hostages started to become apparent, there took place the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The administration went limp on Iran, but the retreat was covered by the belatedly strong posture taken against the Russians all around the Persian Gulf. Criticism of the president was then made to seem unpatriotic.

In those conditions, Kennedy went down in Iowa and faces the prospect of losses in Maine and New Hampshire that would kill his campaign altogether. The more so as failure to win fostered a rebirth, with new trimmings, of Chappaquiddick.

In the Georgetown speech, the senator broke through the rush of events to asset the deeper problems that engendered his campaign in the beginning. He took the president's economic policy, held it up th the light and found it pitiful and hollow. "Inflation," the senator rightly said, "is out of control."

He took the president's energy policy, held it up to the light, and found it to be a thing of shams. "the Carter administration," he rightly said, "has accepted our petroleum paralysis."

Lastly, he rasied the matter of foreign policy, and particularly the president's self-proclaimed Carter Doctrine for the area around the Persian Gulf. He rightly said of all the measures advocated by Carter -- from boycotting the Olympics through the grain embargo to draft registration -- that "symbols are no substitute for strength."

The proposals Kennedy advances to deal with the fundamental problems he has finally raised are not mine. His recommendations for the Persian Gulf, and especially his willingness to make concessions to the ayatollah, seem to me weaker than the policies of the Carter administration. Still, there is a fit between the gravity of the difficulty he discerns and the scope of the remedy he offers. The energy problem is serious enough to warrant gasoline rationing, inflation bad enough to justify controls.

Whatever else it may be, the senator's speech was not politic. Rationing, controls and a deal with the ayatollah are not the stuff of which poularity is made these days. But if Kennedy has not won votes, he has retained something far more precious. Not only has he dared to say that the emperor has no clothes but he has said it in a way that is comprehensive and weighty. His words will come home when the storm breaks and the country stands helpless admidst the desolation of shattered illusions.