LOOKING FORWARD By George Bush with Victor Gold Doubleday. 270 pp. $18.95

GEORGE Herbert Walker Bush's basic problem, as every political junkie knows, is this: he is attempting to do what no other American has succeeded in doing in over a century and a half, to move directly from the vice presidency to the presidency. The last to do so was Martin Van Buren in 1836, and he did it essentially on the powerful political back of his president, Andrew Jackson.

Still, a couple of recent cases demonstrate how close a sitting vice president can get: in 1960 Richard Nixon, constrained as he then was by parts of the Eisenhower record, was barely nosed out by John Kennedy; in 1968 Hubert Humphrey, wearing the weight of Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam War, almost closed the gap on Nixon in those final days. Why not George Bush?

It's not easy at the moment to weigh the power of a Reagan endorsement -- that is, assuming Bush can win the Republican nomination -- but in this, the first of the '88 campaign biographies, Bush is truly the hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil, see-no-evil candidate as far as Reagan is concerned. On the very first page Bush tells us that this is no " 'inside story' of the Reagan Administration." And it isn't.

But it is something of an inside story on Bush, despite all the cautious, play-it-safeness that laces the book, not to mention its bland title. (President Reagan's 1965 biography was Where's the Rest of Me?, Jimmy Carter's in 1975 was Why Not the Best? -- and don't ask whether either question has been answered.)

Despite all of Bush's recitation of his years in Texas and his efforts to become a resident there, he just can't escape the Yankee he was born to be. His book is dedicated to "my mother and father, whose values lit the way." The values? His parents "embodied the Puritan ethic," and the children "all grew up understanding that life isn't an open-ended checking account." Bush had to earn it, and he did but it was tough to begin with. Dad, an investment banker, was twice elected to the U.S. Senate as a Connecticut gentleman, but young George got no more help than a raw beginner's job in the Texas oil fields by way of a family connection. For a while the Bushes did live checkbook poor, George as a traveling salesman peddling drilling bits.

But when he wised up enough to see where the real oil money was to be made and he needed some "investment money," he apparently didn't even try dad; rather, he managed a loan on his own from financier Eugene Meyer, then owner of The Washington Post. And soon success came. By the time his dad died, Bush was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and this is the most he could manage to say: "It was a real blow for me, for all his children. We had lost a best friend."

Out of his Puritan raising came the charge of "preppyism," which Bush tries to exorcise in a couple of fat footnotes. He hasn't worn button-down Oxford shirts "in twenty years," his popular music taste runs "to country-and-western" and so on. He even asked "one media specialist" why the two Roosevelts, two Tafts and Kennedy, who had also gone to Ivy League schools, hadn't been charged with "elitism"; but he couldn't get an answer that went beyond "something to do with 'perceptions.' "

There are treasured memories of vacations at grandpa's big house in Maine, where "for pure summertime pleasure," bringing in a mackerel or pollock "ranked right up there with eating ice cream and staying up late." In recounting his early Texas days, Bush even says -- or says his wife Barbara says -- that he once got drunk with the fellows at a Christmas party.

George Bush was a genuine World War II naval aviation hero (before he went to Yale), and his story retold here is a thriller. Yet somehow it lacks the dash and derring-do of Kennedy's PT-109 exploit, though equally life-threatening. In 1962, when the John Birch Society threatened to seize control of the GOP organization in Harris County (Houston), Bush defeated the ultra-righters, but in doing so he "found out that jugular politics . . . wasn't my style." In his early 30s he had had a bleeding ulcer; he learned to control it, once cured, by "channeling my energies" just as, "All my life I'd worked at channeling my emotions."

There is, by contrast, a moment of fire in the belly in Bush's account of a face-off, when he was running the CIA for President Ford, with Attorney General Edward Levi. Levi demanded the papers an ex-CIA employe had tried to sell the Russians, for use in the trial; Bush refused, to protect the sources. While the two officials were waiting to see President Ford, Levi remarked that withholding the documents "smacked of a Watergate coverup." At this "my patience snapped," writes Bush. "We'll be talking to the President in a few minutes," said Bush, "Why don't you tell him that -- in just those words." Both men "cooled down"; Levi "now realized he'd hit a raw nerve" (Bush had been GOP national chairman during Watergate), so Levi suggested working it out without bothering the president. They did; the criminal was convicted without use of the "documents the CIA didn't want to release."

Which George Bush will we see in the coming primary battles with Bob Dole, Jack Kemp and others? Incidentally, I could find no clue as to whether Bush, if he does win the nomination, would be daring enough to offer Elizabeth Dole the number two spot.

The book contains a lot about presidential-vice presidential compatability, and most of it you've heard many times. There are hints of important issues discussed -- but not Iran -- at the Thursday Reagan-Bush-only luncheons. Indeed, Bush writes that the Iran-Contra affair was not "just an aberration caused by a particular mix of personalities" but "in some ways, it was an excess waiting to happen." This means, as Bush explains it, that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had so altered the original concept of the National Security Council that somehow in 1985-86 the staff "took the ultimate step of not only shaping but operating an independent covert action in the foreign-policy area." There's more about Iran but no more light.

Looking Forward was written "with Victor Gold." Vic Gold is a much respected political journalist and political adviser who, in memory, goes back to us boys on the bus during the Goldwater campaign. I kept looking for bits of pure Gold prose but without success. This book sounds like Bush talking or, to give Gold his due, Gold has learned to write the way Bush talks. The Looking Forward part really isn't there; that will have to come later in the campaign. The book concludes with questions and answers in which someone (Vic? You wouldn't!) is tossing the softballs and Bush is slamming them true and hard. It ends this way:

Q. Last question. Going back to 1948, the year you left college and went out to Texas. Out of all the things you've done since then -- in business, Congress, the U.N., China, the CIA, the vice presidency -- what single accomplishment are you proudest of?

GB: The fact that our children still come home.

Chalmers M. Roberts, former chief diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, began writing about presidential campaigns as a college editor in 1932.