Bob Hope never just comes to town -- he always breezes in . But the breeze that brought him this time was a little different. Hope had just left West Point where he not only taped tonight's NBC special, a birthday party for himself (at 8 on Channel 4), but also, at a press conference, stepped out of character and spoke in favor of some form of gun control.

The comedian, usually irrepressible only in terms of the wisecracks he still delivers with his sly grin, has known many presidents and golfed with some of them. But when his pal Ronald Reagan was felled by a bullet, Hope was moved to take a rare political stand. Now he says he will make a case for gun control to Reagan when he next sees him, probably June 1 at a Washington benefit.

"Yeah, because they tell me he's against gun control, and I want to talk to him about that," says Hope. "I want to get his reasoning on it, because I'm for gun registration. I don't think any jerk that's coked up or anything should be allowed to walk in a store and buy a gun and turn around and shoot 19 people, you know?

"And what the hell, hunters can have their guns, they're registered. I've got a gun in each house for a warning thing; that can be registered." A handgun in each house? "Yeah. What's wrong with that?" Told the excessively influential National Rifle Association would probably take a poke at him for voicing his opinion (and it did the next day), Hope said, "They gotta tell me what's wrong with having them registered. That's all I wanna hear."

Hey, how do you like this guy? He's gorgeous, isn't he? He's also fairly untouchable as institutions go, and a certified natural wonder by now. The birthday being celebrated on tonight's NBC special is his 78th, which actually falls on Friday, May 29.

He seems pleased with the way tonight's special turned out. "Oh God, it was somethin'. First of all I did about 10 minutes of just West Point stuff. And then I did some stuff about Reagan and his sense of humor and the hospital and all. And they bought it. That audience was sensational."

The stuff about Reagan and his sense of humor ventures into a sensative area, since it includes jokes that deal not just with Reagan's recovery but with the shooting itself. Hope, who gets the script out of the bedroom of his hotel suite (humming "bah dee, dah dum" while he looks for it), says he sees nothing wrong with such irreverencies as this: "Can you believe all the jokes President Reagan has been cracking lately? The latest theory is that the bullet passed through Henry Youngman."

Or this: "You know why Ronnie wasn't scared by all those shots? He thought it was one of his reruns from 'Death Valley Days.'"

Or, "Reagan said 'I'm glad he didn't hit me in the rear end. My horse wouldn't recognize me.'" Not all these may survive the final edit of the show that airs tonight; Hope did an 18-minute monologue which he helped cut down to eight minutes.

Hope says "it's all in good taste" and that Reagan has a great sense of humor -- which has already become obvious. "He's an exceptional guy, the more I think about it, you know?" says hope. "He is the first president that's really from show business that has a lot of Stuff. He's got it. He knows that microphone and he's also a master of makeup. So you've got a showman in there, which is something else. And he can communicate. Boy, can that guy communicate with people. I mean he's the best communicator since FDR. He used to get 'em with the Fireside Chat, and you believed him."

Hope is faithful to his friends, including the late Bing Crosby, whose legend gets mauled in the just-published book "Bing Crosby: The Hollow Man," by Donald Shepherd and Robert F. Slatzer. "It's a lot of garbage," says Hope, who says he has read parts of the book. "I told somebody the other day, 'I'm not gonna die. It's not safe.'"

The book reportedly characterizes Crosby, Hope's longtime pal and "Road" partner, as cold and unfeeling. "Oh yeah," says Hope. "That's so full of crap, you know. If you were a friend of Crosby's, and I don't care who you were -- if you were a caddy and he liked you or if you were a president and he liked you -- you know, he didn't care. He was so opinionated about things, but one thing, he was a very loyal guy. He really was.

"Hey, when they came out with a book about Eisenhower, I thought it was criminal. Didja see that book? About how he was having sex with his chauffeur [jeep driver Kay Summersby] and all this garbage? That's a pretty crappy thing. Who knows? Like Noel Coward said, 'Nobody ever caught me in bed with a policeman.' Who the hell knows? I thought that was pretty bad, what they did to Ike. Mamie was still alive. But that's The Dollar, isn't it? If somebody came out with a nice sweet book about Bing, maybe about five people would buy it.

"Well, nobody's ever caught me coming out of a motel room at 3 in the morning, and I hope my luck holds out."

In the fall, Hope begins his 32nd season on NBC-TV; it's also the last year of his current contract. Will he renew, say for another 10 or 20 years?

He doesn't know. Will he still be cracking barbs at 80, 85, 90? He knocks wood -- a vinyl-covered end table in his hotel room -- and smiles the lizard smile.

You can't be with someone who is 78 years old and this raring to go (his summer schedule only allows him 10 days at his lavish Palm Springs home) and not ask him what the secret is. Millions of dollars, maybe? Strawberries dipped in cream and rolled around in brown sugar?

"No, I think it's just enjoying," Hope says. "You know, there's nothing that'll pick you up like excitement, a little excitement. And yesterday, I played golf with Gerald Ford and Gov. Rhodes, and then I was pretty damn tired, I went back to the hotel, didn't have time to rest or sleep, ate some stuff, went down and did an hour-and-10-minute show for the National Insurance Group, and I felt better after the show than I did before.

"That tells you something, you know? I had everything going, great audience, and I told them about Jerry Falwell, who's trying to get sex off television and back into Congress where it belongs. I said, 'Rita Jenrette tried the same thing but she only made it to the steps.' And when you hear audiences laugh, you know, it's very good. It's like going to a party and having fun and being around lots of people you like. And you laugh. And it's the best you ever feel."

Hey -- how do you like this guy?