LOS ANGELES -- Make no mistake about it, Barbara Bush loves her life -- the places she goes, the people she meets, the role she plays, most of all the husband she has. She's been nuts about him since she was 16 -- a child, really.

"The world's been good to us," she says, her limousine rolling down the San Diego Freeway into Orange County, which has also been good to the Bushes. In 1984, the Reagan-Bush ticket commanded a 400,000-vote plurality here, and Bush is counting heavily on a repeat performance this November.

"Some people are motivated by money, some people by power and some people by public service. I put George in that latter category," she says. "He had no great ambitions to make a lot of money. I don't think you'd ever put George down as power mad. It's just public service."

He didn't have to make a lot of money, of course -- even though he did, as it turned out -- because his family already had plenty, but Barbara Bush makes no apologies for that. And power, or degrees of it, always came with the jobs Bush held -- congressman, United Nations ambassador, CIA director, envoy to China -- after he decided on taking the public service path.

But now, as a public servant, Bush has been faulted for being a well-meaning if awkward understudy, his goals unclear, his vision for the country vague. Only in recent weeks, when he publicly disavowed Reagan administration policy on bargaining with drug traffickers, did he begin to assert his own identity.

How much credit for that goes to Barbara Bush can only be surmised. Rich Bond, Bush's deputy campaign director, says she does not seek an active political or policy role but that she does tell Bush "her own private feelings about things." Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.), national cochair of Bush's campaign, says Barbara Bush is "pretty tough" and wants Bush made aware of what he's up against.

"There is a tendency by the staff and press to underestimate her," says Martin.

Given the current debate over how much influence a president's wife should have, it could be risky for a presidential candidate's wife to admit anything beyond alerting her husband to people who do him a disservice.

"I'd love to take credit for all these smart things," Barbara Bush says of reports that she has called the shots on several tactical moves in Bush's campaigns, including one that she recruited Martin as Geraldine Ferraro's stand-in in the rehearsals preparing Bush for the 1984 vice presidential campaign debates.

Martin remembers Barbara Bush warning her against Bush's "yessir" aides. "She told me, 'Don't let them call you off. You have to be very tough on George' ... It's a rougher, meaner world as a candidate and she's been {with Bush} in the campaign for the House twice, the Senate twice -- been there when he's lost, when he's won, and she knows the difference."

Whatever it took for George Bush to begin putting some distance between himself and Ronald Reagan, to those who know her Barbara Bush had long ago established herself as an original. Spunky and down-to-earth, she is almost the antithesis of Nancy Reagan, about whom there are still lingering doubts that despite her crusader role on drug abuse she has really changed her Hollywood style.

Barbara Bush has been the ideal "second lady," careful never to compete with the first lady, maintaining an appearance of friendly independence and a relatively low Washington profile. Bush aides say that has been "perfectly in tune" with her predecessors, consistent with the Rosalynn Carter/Joan Mondale relationship.

Part of Bush's appeal in person, audiences quickly realize, is that she can be very funny -- usually at her own expense. She thinks jokes about oneself are funnier than jokes about other people.

She tells stories about being a wallflower:

"Will that lady in the red dress please get out of the picture?" a photographer yelled at a San Antonio rally where she was standing next to Bush. Looking down at her red dress, she thought, "My Lord, it's me."

She's not afraid to talk about life's small humiliations:

"It's hot in here and I saw you sweating," a woman told her at a Washington victory party when tears of joy streamed down Barbara's face at the sight of so many Bush supporters. "I'm not sweating," Barbara Bush replied. "I'm crying."

She even lets her husband poke fun at her, in a videotape retrospective of her life:

"Where's C. Fred?" Bush says a woman asked at book signing to promote "C. Fred's Story," a collection of stories allegedly written by the family dog but "edited" by Barbara to raise money for her favorite literacy organizations. Told that Fred was home in Washington, the woman was indignant. "You mean I came here for nothing?"

She's made self-deprecation an art, calling attention to her white hair, saying aloud what she suspects others are thinking -- that it makes her look older (turning 63 Wednesday, she's a year younger) than George.

"I probably overdo it, probably. It's sort of a defense, it's a wall," she says.

She doesn't know why -- "If I knew I probably wouldn't do it. But I don't care. I don't think it's that big a deal. It gets a laugh. I think people like to laugh a little," she says.

She may be insecure about the way she looks, but she isn't insecure about her place in the world. "I wouldn't do it if I were insecure. I know I'm very happy. I love my life. I feel very secure. I'm surrounded by family and friends who are very loyal. I have a lot of friends who take very good care of me. I am a good friend, a loyal friend. "

She thinks she's also gained self-assurance from the public life she leads.

"Politics has been very good for us as a family," she says. "Certainly I never did any public speaking. I used to cry when I got up at the garden club, when I felt strongly about something. Now if I feel strongly about something I feel perfectly free to get up and say so."

It has made her highly quotable on occasion, as when she referred to Ferraro before the 1984 debate as "the $4 million -- I can't say it, but it rhymes with rich." "It's part of her problem," oldest son George W. Bush, 41, half jokes about her quick tongue.

Others say it's one of the ways she deals with negative things, with criticism of Bush, about whom she never understood the so-called wimp factor. She knows him as a handsome Navy pilot who swept her off her feet and has been her hero ever since.

Asked about the trade-offs of political life, she acknowledges that she gives up a lot, but says she gets a lot, too. She is ready for whatever happens in November.

"It wouldn't be bad news for me either way. I want him to win because I love my country," she says. "But don't feel sorry for me, no matter what happens."

Her assignment, this trip at least, is to go after the ethnic vote for Tuesday's primary. In Chinatown, campaign aides averted a fistfight among the community's Chinese-American elders by laying down the law: One chair per organization on the dais. But they never could work out who would sit on each side of Barbara Bush, and so assigned those honors instead to Gayle Wilson, wife of Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), and Eileen Padberg, head of Bush's California campaign.

Wilson nearly lost her chair when she left it to introduce Barbara Bush. "Please, Barbara, sit down," insisted a woman, vaulting toward Wilson's chair from the row behind so a friend could take their picture together.

Barbara kept on rising.

That's the thing about getting out of jaded Washington.

"Everybody is so enthusiastic in the country. I mean, look how enthusiastic they were about that program, that lion dance {by Chinese-American children}. We're too sophisticated in Washington," she says later, sorting through her Chinese box lunch for the first thing she's had to eat since dinner at Chasen's the night before with George's financial committee.

In Washington, people are too accustomed to big things, she says. It's nothing when the vice president's wife ("it's not me") shows up at an event. But "people here are thrilled when the vice president's wife comes, even in great big sophisticated Hollywood. They're so sweet."

She may seem brusque on television, or curt at parties, but Bush people call her George Bush's second-best campaign asset -- after Bush, himself, of course. Non-Bush people call her his first.

She tempers her upper-crust upbringing with a Texas congeniality acquired while living there for 20 years. Her slide show of the Bushes at work and play earns her raves along the campaign trail.

"That's my favorite picture -- that's Emperor Hirohito," she says of the diminutive Japanese leader with whom she and Bush are standing. "Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Baby Bear," she says, explaining that she never passes a larger version of it hanging in the Vice President's House that she doesn't secretly chuckle.

Another slide shows her with the emir of Bahrain. "The agonized look on my face is because he had just given me approximately $85,000 worth of jewelry, which I immediately gave to the State Department," she says, alluding to the rule that limits the value of gifts to public officials from foreign governments to no more than $180.

She recites a roster of famous names -- Gandhi, Shamir, Gorbachev -- and impressive foreign experiences, interlacing them with not-so-subtle references to Candidate Bush.

"There is something very appealing about having a president who has lived in a country with no freedom that has one-fourth of the world's population," she says, referring to Bush's 14 months as U.S. envoy to the People's Republic of China.

Just when she begins to sound like the world's worst name-dropper, she says: "I know exactly what you're saying. You're saying 'This woman has to be the world's worst name-dropper,' and you are absolutely right ... I have gotten to know a lot of the world's leaders. Not that they know me. In fact, it's not just foreigners who don't know me."

Then she tells the story about a Swedish Embassy reception Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson gave the vice president and her last fall.

"Usually you don't hear anything in a receiving line, but this night I heard three things. One person gave me a quizzical look and asked, 'Who are you?' Another person looked thrilled, recognition flooding her face, and said, 'Well, hello, Mrs. Shultz.' And the one I really loved was a darling man who got to me, warmly clasped my hand in both of his and said, 'Welcome to our country.' "

But the slide de re'sistance is of the 22-member Bush family gathered in front of the Bushes' Kennebunkport, Maine, house where they vacation en masse every August. "We have been around the world," she says. "We often pick up our children along the way because to us family really is everything."

Later, in the car, she says she never in her life saw boys so different as her sons -- "I say it takes all four boys to make one George" -- and describes the Bushes as a demonstrative family in private. "You know, he hugs our boys, kisses me in public but he'd rather not. That's private, that's personal."

There is a suggestion of that disinclination to be theatrical about his emotions in a campaign videotape about Barbara Bush that Bush narrates. Yet, he also conveys, in his at times slow, groping speaking style, that he's only skimming the surface. "If I weren't George Bush, who would I like to be?" he asks at the end. "Barbara Bush's second husband."

She says she wouldn't be a bit surprised if George, currently working on his father's campaign; Jeb, 35, Florida's secretary of commerce; or Neil, 33, in oil exploration, "did something politically" someday, though she says Marvin, 31, with an investment consulting firm, won't. And daughter Dorothy, 26, a full-time mother, has become "positively aggressive" on the campaign trail.

"We're not dumb," says Barbara Bush. "It's a big country. We have to be everywhere."

The audience is all hers, invited here by Columbia Pictures Television to hear a song commissioned for Barbara Bush's war on illiteracy. "I'm changing my life/ I'm changing my mind/ Letter by letter/ Line by line," sings Lisa Whelchel, who plays Blair Warner in "The Facts of Life" TV series, backed up by the cast and a 600-voice Facts of Life and Literacy choir on the street outside Hollywood's Frances Goldwyn Library.

"When one of us can't read, all of us pay for it," Bush tells the crowd, getting into the spirit of the song by explaining that "I'm changing my speech and my mind letter by letter."

Riding south in her limousine later she frets. "I really blew it. I should have memorized something or other. I should have said more nice things. They deserved more."

She is also bothered by statistics cited in a speech during the ceremony, estimating that "by the year 2000, as many as two out of three will be functionally illiterate." In fact, a letter signed by Columbia's CEO Gary Lieberthal and distributed to the media indicates that the figures were incorrectly given in the speech; the letter lists the estimated number of functionally illiterate adults at one in three in the year 2000.

"I thought the figures were a little bit strong," she says. "I've never heard anybody say we're quite that bad. Their figures were worse than mine, which are appalling."

The figures she uses, quoting experts, show that a million children a year are not qualified to graduate from high school. There is nothing that she worries about -- environment, teen-age pregnancies, AIDS -- that wouldn't be ameliorated if more people could read, she says.

Her concern about literacy began because son Neil was dyslexic. On the videotape, Bush explains how she found teachers to work with him, and that he eventually not only finished high school but got a master's degree.

"I'm interested all the way to the senior citizen," she says, while her husband's interest in education is focused more on those of school age. She describes part of his vision for the country as "an America where every kid graduates from high school not just literate, but computer literate."

"I think she has been a major force behind his educational sensitivities," says Bond. "I also know, on ethics and the type of people Bush would have around him, that she feels very strongly."

On this trip, the only campaign appearance the Bushes make together is at Garfield High School, in heavily Hispanic East Los Angeles. Seated at student desks, the Bushes watch a classroom demonstration by Jaime Escalante. He's the Bolivian immigrant whose remarkable teaching method has earned him a presidential award and hero status in the film "Stand and Deliver," while earning his students advanced placement for college credit in calculus.

"Obviously, we've heard of your teacher," George Bush says, attempting a little Bush humor. "Anybody who can be in People magazine has got to have something going for him."

The session provides Bush a media opportunity to push his vision of educating America. "Math and science are going to be the key to the good life," he says.

Later, Bush seems to forget that the school has become an example by sending 70 percent of its graduates to college. He says: "Even though we emphasize the value of higher learning, you don't have to go to college to be a success. We need those people who build our buildings, who send them soaring into the sky. We need the people who run the offices, the people who do the hard physical work in our society."

At another point, he makes a bid to identify with his audience. "And I believe in this bilingual approach," he says. "We have three grandchildren half Mexican. Their mother came from Mexico ... I just hope they will keep up the language."

Jeb Bush's wife Columba is Hispanic, born in Mexico.

"Now wouldn't it have been nice if one of our sons had been smart enough to marry an Asian?" Barbara Bush tells an Asians for George Bush rally.

Barbara Bush doesn't talk issues in public, though she and George do in private "just because it's of interest." In one-on-one interviews, though, she talks about AIDS, the homeless, affordable housing and catastrophic illness because that's what the people she meets are talking about. Bush aides say she has deliberately stayed away from the nation's drug problem because that has been Nancy Reagan's domain.

After a trip to North Conway, N.H., she told George Bush how the community was solving its housing problem. She says she didn't have to recommend that he invite a banker she met to explain the financing because Gov. John H. Sununu, who was credited with helping Bush win in New Hampshire and bounce back after his defeat in the Iowa primary, beat her to it.

"Governors are wonderful, you know," she says. "It's great theory to sit in Washington and hear theories, but in the states they know what does and does not work."

Does that then make Bush's likely opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a more formidable one?

"He has one state," she says, quickly dismissing him. Then alluding to Jimmy Carter, she adds, "We know what it's like -- it's one thing to have local issues -- we've had a governor for president."

She claims she keeps her distance from Bush's campaign operation, though she likes to sit in on planning sessions. Only that morning Bush and top advisers were planning a series of issues briefings to be held at Kennebunkport this summer.

"George asked me to come in because I'm going to have to feed them and house them and whatever. And I said to {Chief of Staff} Craig {Fuller}, 'Would it make it any easier for you if you know that whatever you decide will be fine with me? I promise you they'll have clean sheets, clean windows to look out of, that I will feed them. I hope I can sit in on the meetings.'

"He said, 'Well, we can't change now. You know you're invited.' He was kidding me -- I didn't go to all the meetings, but I'm interested in them. We had done it before, in 1980.' "

She also says she would not hesitate to tell George Bush what she thought if she saw something or somebody hurting him.

"I'm a very normal human being. I would certainly say to him, 'George, I think Jane Smith is doing you a disservice.' But I wouldn't say fire her or fire him. That's not really the way we work. And I'm not sure others did that either, incidentally," she says, not needing to mention Nancy Reagan's name. "I'm not sure a lot of that wasn't fiction."

After 43 years of being married to George Bush, she says, "I don't fool around with his office and he doesn't fool around with my household."

The best thing she and George Bush ever did after he graduated from Yale was head for Texas. They wanted adventure and excitement. They also wanted independence.

He was a war hero, a star college athlete, the son of an investment banker who would later become a U.S. senator from Connecticut. Friends from their Yale days remember her as cute and nice, a product of private schools, the daughter of the president of McCall Publishing.

In addition to successful fathers, she and Bush had dominating mothers.

"I grew up after I left the shadow of our mothers, whom I loved," she says. "George has a very wonderful -- I mean, I love his mother more than anyone alive, but she's strong. And I had a very strong mother. I think we'd probably not have grown up as quickly."

Texas was where the young Bushes could raise their own family -- five of their six children were born there and a 3-year-old daughter died there -- a giant country that offered new opportunities and the chance to make their mark. Bush built a small fortune through oil exploration and 20 years later when he sold Zapata Off Shore Co., it was for an unconfirmed $1.1 million.

"Someone I saw on television once called it 'chickenfeed,' " she says. "I thought that was sort of rude."

Those Texas years didn't just make George Bush a millionaire. They also gave him a political base. He ran for, and won, a seat in Congress, serving two terms before he decided to try for the Senate.

Though never a rebel with a cause, George Bush always had a social conscience, she says, and during his student days at Yale they both worked on behalf of the United Fund, a community fund similar to the United Way. Young Robin Bush's death from leukemia in 1953 committed them to a lifetime of support for the Leukemia Society of America, of which she is national honorary chairman.

"I don't think anybody's ever questioned our social conscience who's known anything about it. I think it's what your opponents say about you," she says. "Both of us have worked all our lives, as volunteers, trying to help other people. You have to show caring."

For all of that, however, the burden of privilege has never gotten any lighter, and at times, without provocation, she can be defensive.

"George and I aren't society. When have you ever seen us in 'W'?" she scolds, interrupting a partly formed question that begins with the word "society."

After 20 years in and out of official Washington, she's come to think of herself as a "late bloomer," who believes in "passages," or times when one's life and energies are concentrated upon a particular endeavor.

"I really believe it's good for you to get a new subject about every 10 years," she says. "Unless you have a burning desire to be a doctor or president of a bank, probably it's a good thing to shift jobs, meet new people, take on new projects."

There are plenty out there.

"One of the things we've got to do, we've got to acknowledge the fact and do something about our homeless -- 30 percent are women with children," she says. "Men are not being made accountable for the children. I don't know how people face themselves. They go on and have new families and they don't help the women or the children, who I worry about most."

She and Bush talk about things like that in the mornings, over coffee and newspapers-in-bed. He'll point out something to her, and she'll do the same for him. Lots of times she'll read aloud a passage.

There was one week this winter when his campaign wasn't going well and she decided she needed time off from television and newspapers. For diversion, she read a book a day -- cheap little ones, though usually she reads more serious things, she says. At this moment it is "Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; before that "Bonfire of the Vanities" by Tom Wolfe.

"I didn't ask George not to look at television. I just asked him not to do it in the bedroom," she says. "It's just hard to go out and campaign for 12 hours when you're hearing such depressing things."

That's when she announced to a reporter somewhere on the campaign that she reads a book a day. She can't help laughing about it.

"Now I've gone down in history as the world's biggest nut, who never reads the newspaper, never listens to television and reads a cheap little novel a day."