CAMBRIDGE,MASS — CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy went to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University yesterday to discuss his future in politics, and to do so he stepped back and tried to address the hurdle of his past.
He apologized to his constituents in Massachusetts without specifying what he had done wrong in his private life, but he suggested that in the future he would mend his ways.
"I am painfully aware that the criticism directed at me in recent months involves far more than honest disagreements with my positions, or the usual criticism from the far right," he said steadily, looking up from his prepared text, over the heads of 800 members of the audience and straight into a bank of television cameras.
"It also involves the disappointment of friends and many others who rely on me to fight the good fight.
"To them I say: I recognize my own shortcomings -- the faults in the conduct of my private life. I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them." He added, "I believe that each of us as individuals must not only struggle to make a better world, but to make ourselves better, too."
It was the senator's first and only allusion to the damage his reputation had sustained in the wake of the Palm Beach scandal involving an accusation of rape against his nephew -- and the way that reputation blunted his performance in the Judiciary Committee hearings on Anita F. Hill's accusations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Mr. Kennedy had been widely criticized and mocked by Republican adversaries and even fellow liberals. Even his closest friend across the aisle, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, made a crack about the Chappaquiddick accident on the Senate floor, although he later apologized for it.
Mr. Kennedy received a 22 percent approval rating in a national Gallup Poll after the hearings adjourned -- the lowest rating of any senator on the committee.
"He knew people had concerns, and he felt it was important to address these concerns," said Paul Donovan, a spokesman for the senator. "He felt he owed it to the people of Massachusetts."
Mr. Donovan said the senator's office began preparing the speech after the hearings but not in direct response to unfavorable polls.
Mr. Kennedy's admission of "shortcomings" was tersely worded and unemotionally expressed and had an entirely different ring from the pained, personal and uncertain speech he gave immediately after the accident at Chappaquiddick in 1969, when he drove off a bridge, killing a female passenger. At that time, he asked Massachusetts voters to help him decide whether he should remain in office. He later pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident.
He chose the sympathetic setting of his alma mater, among mainly liberal academics and Harvard students, in what was his first attempt to fight back, to repair the damage and restore, if not his personal reputation, then his political standing as the voice of American liberalism.
Some who attended the speech did so because they had heard rumors that Mr. Kennedy would announce either his resignation or his intention not to run again in 1994.
Far from leaving public office, Mr.Kennedy vowed, "I will continue to fight the good fight."
He said, "Unlike my brothers, I have been given length of years and time, and as I approach my 60th birthday, I am determined to give all that I have to advance the causes for which I have stood for almost a quarter of a century."
Mr. Kennedy spoke for half an hour at the Kennedy school, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
He called civil rights the "unfinished business of America" and hailed the accord reached between Congress and the White House on a civil rights bill as "a well-deserved defeat for those who would misuse race as a political weapon."