Barbara Bush was honored at a dinner last night and her husband, the vice president, did as all good spouses do--he came with her.

"My wife is being given a special award tonight," George Bush said, hopping around a reception in the Washington Hilton. "I'm just happy to be along."

That made the hosts of the sixth annual dinner, given by the Joint Center for Political Studies, happy, and it gave Barbara Bush an opportunity for some quips in her speech to about 900 guests from political, academic and business spheres. Bush was given the think tank's annual award for her work in the field of illiteracy.

"They just needed a guest speaker," she said in a conspiratorial whisper earlier in the reception.

Bush confessed in her speech after dinner that she wasn't sure if she wanted her husband there. "I really didn't want him to know how many of his stories I use," she said.

The hotel bristled with security. Guests either walked through metal detectors or were lightly scanned with hand-held detectors as they walked into the reception or dinner. Guards politely but carefully rummaged through purses. The dais where guests sat at the head table was cordoned off.

But inside the VIP reception, the Bushes moved around easily, chatting with the group of political leaders and business people.

The 13-year-old nonpartisan research center focuses on public policy issues of special concern to blacks. "Among the major national . . . 'think tanks,' we are a new kid on the block," said center president Eddie Williams in his remarks. "In fact, we've integrated the block."

Vernon Jordan, on one side of the reception, caught the eye of the vice president and waved to him. "I'm coming, George!" he called out. Jordan, last year's award-winner, had just finished talking to Barbara Bush. "She said, 'I'm glad to follow you, Vernon,' " Jordan said.

Though this was a gathering of some of the more influential black leaders, there was little talk of one pervasive topic these days--the launching of a black presidential candidacy. The center has done a paper evaluating the pros and cons of the idea.

"The whole thing has been put off until after the election in Chicago," said one guest, who asked not to be named, referring to the tension spurred in that city by the mayoral race between the black Democratic nominee, Rep. Harold Washington, and the white Republican, Bernard Epton.

But some guests talked about it--including D.C. Mayor Marion Barry in his opening remarks. "Now, more than ever, we are under fire," said Barry. "Nationally, black politicians feel that neither party has done enough for us. That dialogue on a black presidential candidate should go on. It's healthy for all of us."

Earlier, during the reception, Barry said, "It's amazing how black people can't discuss it. Blacks just start discussing it and and people say, 'What are you all doing?' Blacks have been the most loyal supporters of Democrats. I think it's time we banded together to make sure we get our due."

Said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel Pierce: "I think it's understandable. The Democrats have 90 percent of the black vote and blacks aren't getting what's commensurate with that. They haven't been getting what they deserve." Pierce is the only black Cabinet officer in the Reagan administration. "With 10 percent, black Republicans are probably getting proportionately more than the Democrats."

In her speech, which was about illiteracy, Bush pointed out that "almost all experts say we have 23 million functional illiterates. Some experts say 53 million . . . "

She noted other grim statistics and told the group, "I hope I'm scaring you to death. I'm scared. What do I want you to do about it? . . . I'm cheering for teachers. In most cases, they are underpaid and overworked."