Vice President George Bush, who inspires jokes on television and satire in sophisticated comic strips, this year is also stimulating political journalists to produce some of the best biographical essays ever done about a presidential candidate. It's asking a lot to hope that as many people read the profiles of Bush as chuckle at the "Doonesbury" cartoons or the ''Saturday Night Live'' satires. But given the odds favoring the election of another Republican president and Bush's position as the leading prospect for the GOP nomination, that understanding is important.
The most recent Bush profile, and perhaps most remarkable in its depth, was written by Barry Bearak, Miami bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. On Nov. 22 it occupied more than four full pages in that newspaper. A month earlier, Margaret Garrard Warner wrote an insightful cover story on Bush for Newsweek magazine. Back in October 1986, Walt Harrington broke much of the Bush trail in a profile for The Washington Post Magazine, and there have been other good ones as well.
These character studies reject the easy Bush caricature. ''George Bush is no wimp,'' Bearak writes, ''certainly not in any sense of cowardice. On the contrary, he is astonishingly resilient and persevering. Nor has he been untrue to his own sense of political ethics,'' to the values of his upbringing.
That rearing, in the absolute security of wealth and social position embodied in the landmarks of his formative years, Greenwich, Kennebunkport, Andover and Yale, is light-years removed from the life experiences of most people in the nation he seeks to lead. It gives Bush what Harrington calls an ''Old Worldly'' air. ''Born of this century, George Bush embodies much from the last,'' Bearak writes in his eloquent concluding paragraph. ''He is a man of so much hesitance, yet a man always forging ahead -- a man steadied by the voices of a simple and privileged world chanting inside him.''
Those voices -- most important that of his dowager mother, Dorothy, still formidably on the scene -- have issued a variety of seemingly conflicting commands: Compete, George, but do not confront. Be successful, but never boastful. Be considerate of others, but always remember who you are.
George Bush emerges in these portraits as something of an innocent. World War II plucked young Bush from a loving, close-knit family where he and the others lived ''snug as larvae in a cocoon,'' as Bearak says. After the war, he and his wife, Barbara, took off for Texas, but spiritually they never left home. Essentially uninterested in abstract ideas or theories, Bush has ''never been immutably tied to the great currents of his time,'' Harrington observes.
He also has been singularly free of the self-doubt that breeds skeptical reflection or introspection. To search for a core of philosophy or belief in such a man, all three conclude, is fruitless. The point of the political quest for Bush is the quest itself, honorably pursued. Public service is for him, as for his financier/senator father, as much an obligation as good manners. He has serenely survived many humiliations in a long political career, sustained by the affection he evokes without effort, not only from family members, but from the hundreds, even thousands, of friends who warm themselves in his benign personality.
The profiles make clear that Bush has spent much of his life pleasing others; he likes to be liked. Ronald Reagan is only the latest of many strong figures whose views Bush has internalized effortlessly as his own. Through six decades of life, Bush has successfully balanced extraordinarily high levels of both ambition and deference. The central mystery is what standards would surface once Bush had satisfied his ambition by becoming president and no longer had anyone to whom he must defer.
He would be predictably civil, modest and considerate. But what else? On what issues of principle would a President Bush stake -- or even sacrifice -- his popularity? His record gives no real clues, so the question must be pressed in the coming campaign.
Ray Walker, a psychiatrist-cousin with no special fondness for Bush who appears memorably in Bearak's profile, suggests that Bush would strive to please public opinion but, equally, to gain the approval of his chosen political advisers. That means close attention must be paid, not only to the competence and character of those advisers, but to the range of their experience and the breadth and diversity of their backgrounds. Campaigning to Republican audiences and consulting with world leaders, which is mostly what Bush has done for the last third of his life, does not guarantee a clear grasp of the reality of people's lives.
It might not be a bad idea to ask Bush, at every opportunity, questions designed to test how much of that outside reality has penetrated the protective layers of personal serenity and social invincibility the profilers depict at the heart of his extraordinary life. It is as important that he know us as that we know him.