If, as Samuel Johnson wrote, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, then loyalty is the last refuge of the wimp. The proof of that is George Bush, who has the vice presidency confused with the confessional. Under no circumstances will he reveal the advice he gave President Reagan about the Iran-contra affair. Loyalty, it seems, has struck him mute.

So in effect Bush has told us the following: He knew arms were being sold to Iran. He thought the missiles were just an attempt to curry favor with the nonexistent moderates. He didn't know arms were being swapped for hostages. He had only "general knowledge" of the operation because he was "out of the loop" and sometimes out of Washington. With Bush, the buck never stops. He's close to the president when it comes to successes but out of town when it comes to failures.

But documents tell a different tale. They say Bush attended many National Security Council and other White House meetings where the arms-for-hostages deal was discussed. Notes of those meetings reveal the context was clear: missiles were being sold to Iran in the hope that Americans being held hostage in Lebanon would be released. In all that time, one participant in those meetings told The Post, Bush never voiced reservations. "He was not pro. He was not con." The source said Bush "echoed the president."

That's hardly loyalty. For a good working definition of loyalty we can look forward to the memoirs of Secretary of State George Shultz. Shultz voiced strong objections to the Iran arms sale. So, too, did former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger. They did not define loyalty as telling Reagan what he wanted to hear but as doing all they could to detour him from the perilous path he had chosen.

What Bush told the president in private is something we still do not know. What he told the president in the presence of others is something we are beginning to find out. (Shultz, according to White House documents, recalls Bush's support of the arms deal at one meeting as being "intense." Bush cannot recall the meeting.) The record suggests that Bush confused loyalty with obsequiousness, that he marshaled his experience in foreign affairs (former CIA director, U.N. ambassador) only to tell the president what he wanted to hear.

Over and over during this presidential campaign, the issue of character has emerged. It first struck Gary Hart, who fled the campaign, regrouped and then came back as an insurgent. It next hit Sen. Joseph Biden, who tripped over his own fast tongue and had to withdraw from the race. It has taken a couple of nips out of Pat Robertson, who forgets positions he once took as a minister and who, when reminded, says he's now a politician anyway.

But isn't there a question of character when it comes to Bush? Where was the steel he says he has when it came to the worst foreign policy blunder of the Reagan administration? Can he persist in saying he knew little when documents and witnesses say otherwise? The issue here is truth -- that and principle.

No doubt, a vice president owes his president loyalty. But the attributes of an obedient servant are not those of a president. And anyway, Bush is not only the vice president but a presidential candidate as well. As such, he has two audiences of equal importance -- the voters who want to know what he thinks and a president who wants to know the same thing.

How would it be disloyal for Bush to tell the voters what he's told Reagan? That's not the same as disclosing what Reagan told him. Bush has reversed the role of priest and penitent. The latter is free to tell all -- as, presumably, Bush has done to the Iran-contra grand jury. Why should it know what we do not?

Once before, a vice president damaged his presidential chances by asserting his independence from the president too late in a campaign. Humbert Humphrey did that in 1968, and the issue was Vietnam. As with the Iran-contra affair, Vietnam was not just a matter of policy, but of principle and values -- a gauge by which to judge the man. Bush says he's not the type to kiss and tell, but that's a cop-out. By saying he's close to the president, he makes the kiss a matter of record. It's the tell we await.