Within two weeks, last December, George Bush went from the Washington summit, where he clasped the hand of Mikhail Gorbachev, to his Christmas party, where he clasped that of his "hero" -- Oliver North. As he greeted North, his campaign was airing a television commercial in Iowa concluding with a freeze-frame of Bush with Gorbachev.

Bush has campaigned as all things to all Republicans. In the Iowa caucuses, he ran as both the Texas entrepreneur and the scion who had risen through appointments and was, as his closing television commercials in Iowa put it: "Ready, on Day One, to Be a Great President." Iowa Republicans, who chose Bush in 1980, declined to grant the Reagan surrogate the appointment he sought.

The identity of George Bush, especially after his rejection in Iowa, could prove to be a critical issue in the Republican campaign for president.

On the surface, he appears to be the stereotype of moderation: his J. Press clothing, the colored-cloth watchbands, the Connecticut roll of his vowels. Is his cultural familiarity cloaking a movement conservative? Or are his endless gestures to the right wing simply politics, hiding a truer self -- an old Establishmentarian who will suddenly be unveiled in the Oval Office?

Pat Robertson raised the identity question in Iowa ads that referred to "Bush liberals." So did chief rival Bob Dole, whose origin lies in a small Kansas town, when his ads told Iowans, "He's one of us."

If there is an "us," as Dole insists, there must be a "them" -- and Bush must belong to their club. But who are they and where does Bush fit in?

"I'm one of you," Bush said yesterday in New Hampshire, where he still leads in polls. "I was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Connecticut ... and have a home across the way in Maine."

But David Rockefeller, the former chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank and founder of the Trilateral Commission (which brings together leaders from the United States, Japan and Europe to develop common approaches to global problems) believes he knows who George Bush is: He's one of us.

"Bush has the knowledge and the background and has had the posts," he says. "If he were president, he would be in a better position than anyone else to pull together the people in the country who believe that we are in fact living in one world and have to act that way."

(Five Rockefellers, including David, support their preference with more than words, as contributors to Bush's political action committee, the Fund for America's Future. The fund's list of contributors reads like a cast of characters from Louis Auchincloss' novels, ranging from Louis Cabot to John Winthrop.)

The Reestablishment

George Herbert Walker Bush, in the view of many of his social peers, is the last, best hope for the restoration of the old Eastern Establishment -- call it the Reestablishment.

Since the Vietnam war, the influence in the councils of state of the Eastern Establishment has waned. The centers of the Establishment, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, were wracked by bitter, internal dispute. And the old post-World War II foreign policy consensus became little more than a memory.

As the candidate of the Reestablishment, Bush would finally resolve his vexing problem with, as he has put it, "the vision thing." (Bush, through his spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this article.)

"There's the potential for rebuilding consensus around the kinds of things that are the follow-through to the Reagan initiatives," says Elliot Richardson, the former attorney general and secretary of defense, who epitomizes this Establishment of moderate Republicanism, and was repudiated by the Reagan administration at its inception.

The Reestablishment, as Richardson sees it, is not a utopian fantasy but quite plausible: "It could be done; it could be a tremendous contribution to the national interest. It just might be possible that Bush's imagination might be captured by this."

As David Rockefeller sees it, the defining moment for Bush -- and Reagan -- is the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. "It would be difficult to imagine," he says, "that it wouldn't be recorded in history that this was the most significant thing Reagan has done in his administration."

Part of Reagan's achievement, according to Rockefeller, was his surprise attack on the right wing for its belief that nuclear war is "inevitable."

"It's really courageous on Reagan's part not to go along with their point of view and to castigate them publicly and sharply," he says. "It was courageous and very appropriate." To him, Bush is the logical heir to this Reagan -- the Reagan who makes arms control agreements: "Bush has more knowledge about it than anyone else."

His Establishment background has given him credence on the treaty that initially allowed him to differentiate himself from the Republican pack (until Dole decided to embrace the treaty). Arms control is being taken in some quarters of the Establishment as a sign of the true Bush.

"I don't really think it's going to be that difficult," says Paul Warnke, the chief arms control negotiator during the Carter administration, about the Reestablishment. "If you look at the Council on Foreign Relations directors and the Trilateral Commission, it has been bipartisan. With this kind of development {the INF Treaty}, it harks back to the good old days. Bush comes out of that community to a much greater extent than Bob Dole.

"He maintains he's a Texan, but I don't think that fools very many people ... Some of the gilt {of the treaty} is going to rub off on him, particularly if you end up with an agreement in principle on strategic arms. He can position himself as the logical guy to carry that forward."

"He's submerged his own views," says former senator Charles McC. Mathias, an exemplary moderate Republican. "The question is whether they have survived and will they surface."

The W-Word

Within the world of the Eastern Establishment, Bush is seen as his father's son: an heir to the legacy of former U.S. senator Prescott Bush, a partner in the Brown Brothers, Harriman investment bank. This implies more than his class position; a world view is also imputed to him.

"I knew George's father, liked him very much," says J. William Fulbright, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Prescott was a reasonable conservative banker. A very nice man, very reasonable ... He wasn't different from the conventional wisdom of the time."

Yet Bush seems consumed with the struggle for identity, a personal reestablishment. His campaigns have been filled with skirmishes on the battlefield of manhood.

His 1984 debate with Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, followed by his remark that he had "kicked a little ass," was an early variation on the theme. His recent firefight with CBS' Dan Rather was the latest episode in the struggle, public and personal, to define himself.

"He was very close to not running for president," says Daniel Murphy, his former chief of staff, now a lobbyist. "He felt he'd been pushed and tested quite a bit by annoying, petty reporters, constantly dwelling on his personal things ... It didn't bother Reagan, but it bothered the vice president."

It rattled him perhaps because he was born to rule but not necessarily to run.

Prescott Bush cast a long shadow. He raised his son in cloistered Greenwich, Conn.; sent him to Phillips Andover Academy, where the Brahmin ethic of public service and self-effacement was inculcated, and then to Yale. Prescott's election to the Senate affirmed the family's sense of being part of a natural aristocracy.

"Big guy, 6-4, tough," Bush told interviewer David Frost when asked about Prescott. "One time when I was less than truthful he picked up a, I don't know whether it was a squash racket or a, looked like a big stick ..."

Speak softly and carry a big stick? The last gentrified Republican president was Theodore Roosevelt, who acceded to office by the accident of assassination. His identity was hardly faint; the former cowboy, New York City police commissioner and Rough Rider was never saddled with a "wimp" label.

When the label is invoked about Bush, though, the real subtext is: Who is he and what does he believe?

His campaign first attempted to deal with the W-word by having the candidate recount his World War II exploits. Since the question is not really about physical courage, however, the word kept blinking above his head, as when Bush announced that his supporters had failed to attend a certain caucus because they were at their daughters' coming-out parties.

"Nobody who knows George Bush believes that he's a wimp," says Robert Ellsworth, campaign chairman for Dole. "But maybe it is a way of talking about something else." Social class, perhaps.

Bush's reply is not what he provided in 1980, when his slogan -- "A President We Won't Have to Train" -- suggested that he deserved the presidency because of his rarefied background. Now, on the stump, he says he's one of us. As a young man, he went to "strike out on my own in the oil fields and build a business." No reference is made to Brown Brothers, Harriman.

And yet in his recently published memoir, "Looking Forward," he paints a picture with more shading, of someone who has been given everything and yet whose ambition gives him no rest. He returns from the war eager to leave comfortable Connecticut. When he sets up his own oil company he draws upon investments from his uncle, Herbert Walker, a banker, and wealthy friends of the family.

For Bush, all roads lead to home, and away from home. The story of his passage from one upper class to another, from Yale's Skull and Bones to Houston's Petroleum Club, is as ambiguous as his indeterminate political passage.

Fulbright, who concedes he does not know George Bush "very well," believes his supplications of the right would not meet with his father's approval:

"I don't think that Pres would much like it." But he adds: "Everyone running for office has to compromise some of their views to get elected. It's a question of how far you go."

Leaving the Fold

George Bush, in fact, has been a dues-paying member of the Establishment, if it is succinctly defined as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. But, once again, his is a story of ambiguity; for Bush has also played a minor role in the Establishment's crackup.

Excluding the vice presidency, he has held three posts concerned with foreign affairs: ambassador to the United Nations, plenipotentiary to China and director of the CIA. In the first two positions nothing particularly notable was attached to his tenure. But at the CIA he presided over an enormous controversy whose outcome dismayed the old Establishment and energized the rising right wing.

In the 1970s, conservatives denounced the CIA's assessment of Soviet military strength as a vast underestimate. They lobbied the Ford administration to establish a countercommission -- the B-Team -- to review the documents and come up with another conclusion. CIA Director Bush approved the project, which was a direct rebuff of the CIA's own experts. The B-Team's report adopted a dark view of Soviet ambitions -- a view that Ronald Reagan ran on in 1980.

Richard Pipes, a Harvard historian whose principal work dealt with 19th-century Russia, was the B-Team's director. "I believe Bush was the one who forced the CIA to reverse its judgment of the Soviet threat," says Pipes. "My assumption is that he understood this threat. I used to see him from time to time. He rarely expressed opinions."

Upon a moment of reflection, Pipes says, "I just don't know what Bush's positions are. I'm not sure that anyone knows. It is a problem." Pipes himself, who served during the first Reagan term as the Soviet analyst on the National Security Council, is disillusioned with the latest turn toward arms control. "Despite the great success of his {earlier} policy, Reagan has abandoned it ... The legacy of the first four Reagan years has dissipated." Is Bush the one to carry on this more recent legacy? "Whether he has it in him to give general leadership, I just don't know," says Pipes.

"He allowed Pipes to run that goddammed B-Team," says Daniel Murphy. "That's very typical of George Bush ... The B-Team never did what they were supposed to do. They wrote in their pet projects. They never did their job. It was a lot of publicity. Bush probably thinks it was more worthwhile."

In 1980, Bush ran on his re'sume'. As he dashed out of Iowa, victorious in the caucuses and anointing himself with the "big mo," he suddenly discovered that his background was being turned against him in New Hampshire. His memberships in the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations were now raised by the desperate Reagan campaign.

"They all thought we were crazy talking about the Trilateral Commission, but it drove Bush nuts," says one of those involved in Reagan's New Hampshire effort. "It made him a Rockefeller."

Bush lost the primary, and later dropped his affiliations, which stirred some anger in Establishment precincts.

"I used to see something of him in the days when he was on the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations before he resigned," says Thomas Hughes, a liberal who is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "What does that tell you about the strength of his convictions and the tendencies he'd like ... He must be bothered by some of the ridicule behind the scenes by some of his old New England friends as he goes through the contortions of a modern reactionary Republican."

Before this week's Iowa caucus, Pat Robertson's TV ads spoke of "Bush liberals." In a motel basement in Coralville, Robertson pointed to a larger enemy: the Council on Foreign Relations, which seeks "a socialistic one-world government."

The Loyalist

After Reagan named him as his running mate in 1980, Bush became the impeccable loyalist. The reward for his faithfulness is the support of the Reagan loyalists, who favor him precisely because he stands and waits.

At the same time, some Establishment figures are forgiving of his hasty retreat from the Trilateral Commission and the CFR during the heat of the 1980 contest. "I don't know what I would have done," says David Rockefeller. "I don't really think he accomplished what he hoped {by quitting}. It was still used against him. He has since spoken to the council and the Trilateral and has been fully supportive of their activities. Even though he has resigned, he hasn't walked away from them."

And yet Murphy says Bush has not enlisted in the unified war of Third World "freedom fighters" to roll back communism: the Reagan Doctrine. "I've never heard him use that," he says. "I don't know where the hell the Reagan Doctrine came from." Bush, suggests Murphy, is not the sort to set himself at the head of a global crusade. "My guess," he says, "is that he would see them {civil wars in Third World Marxist countries} as separate cases."

But Bush's gyrations cast doubt on whether there can be a Reestablishment, in the view of Alton Frye, the Washington director of the CFR: "Maybe it's too much to expect in a society that's been transformed as much as ours. Maybe we're seeing a much more rapid change, with new coalitions being bred all the time. Which one will attain the scale to produce a president and a policy?"

Frye adds, "I have high regard for George Bush and the political course he was trying to chart in the 1970s and 1980s. I understand the political calculations in that."

In spite of the oscillations of the campaign, David Rockefeller feels assured that Bush's politicking is simply the means to the end. When asked about the Reestablishment, he feels that Bush is the natural man for it -- once in office. "Hopefully," says Rockefeller, "that's just what he'll do. Having had a brother in a similar situation I'm sympathetic. I'm respectful of the fact that he doesn't want to be disloyal to his boss. Nelson did very much the same."

Elliot Richardson says, "The problem with the Establishment is not that there's all that much fragmentation within it. It's that it's irrelevant ... One of the lacks of the political system is that the centrists don't have a convention, at least the Republican centrists. It may be that Bush has the imagination and guts to see that. Here is a significant opportunity for him, looking beyond the convention to the general election."

The Reestablishment, according to Richardson, "could position him; it could give him the quality of stature. He may be up to it."

But Richardson pauses: "You can certainly tell by the manner I respond that I don't say of course ... I don't know."