George Bush, Yale, Class of '48, paid tribute to Woodrow Wilson, Princeton, Class of '79 (that's Eighteen '79) in a slightly belated observance of Wilson's 125th birthday yesterday at the Smithsonian.

"We surely seem to be celebrating a lot of Democratic birthdays lately," Bush observed. Then there was a little touch of partisanship: "I want you to know that there are other birthdays of great Americans this week. There's Zane Grey, Adlai Stevenson, Ronald Reagan and Tallulah Bankhead . . ."

Before an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the vice president also paid tribute to the object that hit his car yesterday and caused pandemonium until tests proved it was not a bullet. "That incident came just in the nick of time, I found out later," he said. "When I got to the office there was a letter that had just arrived from a supporter in Bangor, Maine. And what he wanted to know was, 'Whatever happened to George Bush.' Well, after yesterday morning, I didn't have to give him an answer."

Following a party in the Smithsonian's Great Hall, Bush gathered with about 150 guests -- including prominent Wilson scholars and most of the illustrious Smithsonian trustees and other brass -- for a small seminar, rather like an enlarged version of the tutorial precepts that Wilson started while he was president of Princeton.

"No speeches, just a dialogue," Bush declared. "This is what Wilson would have liked. Someone once complimented him on the shortness of his speeches and asked him how he did it and how long it took. Wilson replied, "Well, to do a 10-minute speech it takes a week of work, for 20 minutes it takes three days, for 30 minutes it takes two days and for a hour speech, I'm ready right now.' "

Yesterday was actually not the anniversary of Wilson's birth. It was Dec. 28. But that ceremony had to be delayed because the guest of honor was ill. And yesterday was, by coincidence, the anniversary of Wilson's death.

The vice president showered much praise on the work of the Wilson Center. "With the proliferation of a scholarly center like this and of the Kennedy Center here we are indeed in a renaissance, one that would have greatly pleased Jefferson and Washington and Adams."

Then he noted that there is no monumental memorial for Wilson here and added, "I am confident that the ghost of Woodrow Wilson is content to have such a splendid living memorial in his memory instead."