Sen. Ted Kennedy, I've decided, is an even more tragic figure than we knew. His recent drenching in seamy headlines out of the Kennedy compound in Florida where an alleged rape occurred make him appear as a man trying to self-destruct.

Although the Massachusetts Democrat wasn't charged with anything, he looked silly - spending the better part of a night at a Palm Beach bar, bringing two women home with him and his son and nephew, then apparently wandering around the house without trousers.The influential Boston Globe, from Kennedy's home state, ran the story on the front page with three full pages of detail inside. Mike Barnicle, Globe columnist, who has always been supportive of Kennedy's politics, called it a "dreary, pathetic tale." He made fun of Kennedy's statement that he was simply enjoying "a traditional Easter weekend," which, said Barnicle, "makes you wonder what these people do to celebrate something like Father's Day."

Barnicle pronounced the evening "quite simply, the end of Edward Kennedy's life in politics." He predicted he would lose his next election because "people have grown weary of paying attention to a public person nearly 60 years of age who seems not to have the personal discipline to stay home and leave public skirt-chasing to those young enough to participate."

Yet Kennedy's political colleagues have been supportive. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, whose political and ethical base contrasts sharply with Kennedy's, has developed a good friendship and working relationship with him.

Hatch allegedly told him, "Ted, if you keep getting into trouble, I'm going to lose my temper and I'm going to send the Mormon missionaries after you."

Allegedly, Kennedy said, "Orrin, I'm just about ready for them."

Actually, Kennedy has done a number of favors for Hatch involving Mormonism, including speaking about Boston politics and culture to the LDS missionaries in the Boston area. It's still pretty far-fetched to suppose that Kennedy will ever embrace the Mormon faith.

The fact is that the history of the Kennedy family is almost completely devoid of any standard of sexual morality. Kennedy's father, Joseph Sr., had a legendary affair with actress Gloria Swanson and numerous lesser affairs with young women, sometimes in competition with his sons.

John F. Kennedy is legendary not only for his political charisma but for his sexual immorality. I have closely examined the papers at the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, and it can safely be said that his sexual escapades date back to college days and continued unabated even after his marriage to Jacqueline and his election to the presidency.

Brother Bobby also slipped numerous times - but in those days, the press didn't talk about Jack's or Bobby's sexual activities.

Today the political standard is different, as Gary Hart so unpleasantly discovered. The women's movement made it harder to so blatantly exploit women. Instead of finding out about sexual affairs of politicians after they die, we find out before they're nominated.

We expect more from them now.

That's why recent publicity makes Ted Kennedy look pathetic. For years he tried to keep his marriage alive for political reasons, but now that it is over he lives like a carefree playboy. And even if it's no longer politically acceptable, Kennedy doesn't care, because he has no intention of running again for the presidency.

In spite of that criticism, Kennedy is very effective at what he does. Only two years ago I watched him fluently field tough questions from a large Massachusetts college audience with astounding command of facts. In a small gathering afterward he was down-to-earth and friendly.

He has been devoted to his career in the U.S. Senate. He has a long, distinguished legislative record for Massachusetts and the nation - one much more impressive than that of either of his brothers. Almost all of the major social legislation in the past quarter century has his mark. On that basis, he undoubtedly thinks Massachusetts voters will never turn him out.

I think he's right.