George Bush has to be the most-traveled person in American politics, crisscrossing the country and trotting the globe for more than 20 years as a congressman, party chairman, diplomat and especially as vice president since 1981. Yet he remains, in my view, an innocent.
I was struck by that quality the other day when I met with him in his Executive Office Building suite, over lunch-time hamburgers. In one respect, Bush was proud to proclaim his innocence, happily asserting that the Iran-contra hearings had established the truth of his claim last winter that he had no knowledge of the diversion of arms-sale profits to support the anti-Sandinista ''freedom fighters.''
But when the conversation turned to his role in the Reagan administration and his plans for the coming campaign, Bush displayed an unstudied insouciance that made me wonder whether he really knows what lies ahead for him when he becomes a declared presidential candidate in two months. This is going to be a brutal, bare-knuckles brawl. As the presumed favorite of the party in power, Bush will be the target of everyone's barbs, Democrats and Republicans alike. Especially for the other Republicans, the name of the game is Get George Bush.
He has formidable advantages, including a war chest triple anyone else's and by far the widest, deepest organization of anyone in either party. The serenity with which he surveyed the political scene, while spreading imported mustard on his chopped American beef, could certainly be taken as a sign of confidence.
But there is a Potemkin Village quality to the Bush edifice. The office he holds is high in status but empty of power. His high poll ratings camouflage a broad public perception -- however unfair -- that he is a political weakling. And listening to him talk, time and again I had to ask myself whether Bush had any idea how to protect himself in the coming fight. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Bush celebrated the fact that the hearings ended with not one word of testimony impugning his role in the Iran-contra affair. Even if there were a smoking gun, all the witnesses agreed, his fingerprints would not be on it.
Terrific. Except for one thing. Neither is there any indication that Bush opposed this folly, which undercut the antiterrorism policy he was supposedly charting for the administration. Why was the most experienced foreign-policy and national-security man in the Reagan circle mute during all this?
His answer is that the failure to handle the matter in formal National Security Council meetings meant ''we were not in the loop. When you don't know something,'' he told me, ''it's hard to react.''
Were you really unaware that the secretaries of State and Defense were frantically trying to block this CIA-NSC staff plan? I asked -- not once, but three times. Each time, Bush's answer was that he missed the Dec. 7, 1985, meeting in which George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger vehemently expressed their objections, because ''I was off at the Army-Navy football game.''
Leave aside the testimony that he did attend another meeting, exactly a month later, where Shultz and Weinberger repeated in strong terms their warnings. Just focus on that Army-Navy game excuse.
Is Bush so innocent that he cannot imagine what some of his Republican rivals or any of the Democrats will do with that line in future speeches and debates? You can hear them: ''My friend George says he has unmatched experience, seven years at the president's side. Why he was so important in the decision-making that when they were figuring out how to protect the Persian Gulf, influence Iran, combat terrorism and save the hostages, they sent George off to cheerlead at the Army-Navy game.''
A second example. As Bush edges toward a declared candidacy and a timid declaration of independence from complete Reagan orthodoxy, he has fastened on education as his favorite speech subject. Not a bad choice.
His first specific ''new idea'' in the field came in a ballyhooed speech to the National Conference of State Legislatures. He proposed tax-exempt federal education bonds to allow families to save for future college costs. He told the legislators that saving $25 a month would get you enough to attend a state college; $140 a month, enough for a private university.
It takes no genius to figure out that unless some kind of cap is put on the program, or some income test applied, these tax exemptions would be worth far more to a Greenwich millionaire in financing a Yale education for his daughter than to a family in Greencastle, Ind., with a son hoping to attend Ball State College.
But when I asked this obvious question, Bush said only that ''a lot of the detail has not been worked out.'' Is he so innocent that he does not know that in a campaign, by the time the ''detail'' had been worked out, his opponent would have had three days of television and headline fun with Bush's scheme of ''welfare for the wealthy?''
Bush's managers have to be asking themselves if he is ready for the shark tank he is about to enter. If not, we're going to be witnessing the slaughter of the innocent.