Month after month, newsmen asked the same question and got the same answer. The question was, "Senator Kennedy, do you plan to run for president?"

The answer was always, "I've said many times that I expect President Carter to be renominated, and I expect to support him in the election. I can only give you that same answer now."

Sometimes these colloquies lasted long enough for the question to be posed a second time. Somebody would ask, "Are you saying that you do not intend to run for president in 1980?" Sen. Kennedy would repeat his previous response: "I expect President Carter to be renominated, and I expect to support him in the election."

How would Sen. Kennedy react if the question were suddenly asked again today? Would he, out of force of habit, still say he expects to support Carter? Or would he now explain how and when he found out that Carter "lacks leadership"?

Perhaps the question now should be, "Senator, would you please tell the nation what you knew about Mr. Carter and when you knew it?" HELP WANTED

Those of you who have grown old with me will recall that for decades we District Liners have been lending a hand to our local Mental Health Association's "Operation Santa Claus."

MHA asks for community support in collection gifts for patients undergoing mental treatment, some of whom have no kinfolk. It's mighty depressing to be the only person in the ward who gets no visitors and no presents.

To try to avoid painful situations of this kind, we are asked to help by buying and donating gifts that MHA will distribute among the patients. Clothing is always useful -- things like shirts, slips, hosiery, slippers, gloves, scarves, ties, headgear, sleepwear, sweaters, belts and ties. Toiletries are also well-received. So are wallets and purses, playing cards, games, books, craft kits, chess and checker sets. Don't forget pens, pencils and stationery.

Please gift-wrap your contribution and tag it to indicate for which sex it is intended, the sizes of clothing items, and the age range of gifts intended for children.

Bring your gifts to any of the 11 pickup points in this area -- MHA's office at 2101 16th St. NW, All Saints Church at Chevy Chase Circle, Christ Church in Alexandria, Olsten Temporary Services on K street, Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church, The Church of Our Savior on Iriving street NE, Church of the Atonement on East Capitol street, St. Patrick's Episcopal Church on Foxhall road Nw, National Prebsyterian Church administration building on Nebraska avenue NW, St. Augustine Episcopal Church on M street SW and St. Mary's Court on 24th street NW.

Please note: These facilities are open at various times. It would be wise to phone the one nearest you to find out on what days and during what hours your gift can be dropped off. They're all in the phone book.

The modern trend in mental therapy is "deinstitutionalization." Some 2,000 patients remain at St. Elizabeths, but 6,000 have moved out into foster care homes and supervised apartments. In small groups, they are making successful transitions to the outside community.

For the 6,000 who have already left St. E's, the Mental Health Association will hold a big Christmas party on Dec. 18 (at All Souls' Church). MHA would like to have your gifts in hand a few days before the 18th so that it will have time to sort and catalogue what is available for distribution. A separate gift distribution will be held for the 2,000 patients who remain at St. Elizabeths.

If you prefer, you can always contribute money instead of specific gifts, and MHA will do the shopping for you. (It is a United Way agency and can be trusted.) For additional information you can phone the D.C. Mental Health Association by dialing 462-1122. ORBEN IS IN RARE FORM

Bob Orben finds it surprising that Rep. George Hansen of Idaho was interested enough in our Middle East problems to go to Iran. To people in Idaho, Orben notes, "the Middle East is Indianapolis."

He assumes Hansen had no trouble finding the Iranian foreign minister's office. "It's the door with the name written in chalk -- and a big wet sponge nearby."

If we learned anything from our relations with Vietnam, Nicaragua and the shah's government in Iran, Orben thinks we may hit upon the one sure way to topple Khomeini: "Back him."

Incidentally, Orben reports that today's children are too sophisticated to believe in things like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. He says, "If you mention the Tooth Fairy, they think you're talking about a dentist in San Francisco."