Those who have no great stake in George Bush's political future are free to view his harrying by the hindsighted hounds of Iran-contra as a familiar, if ever puzzling, vice presidential dilemma.

John Adams, the first vice president, admitted that he held a "worthless" office. Yet he and Jefferson and some other early incumbents managed to parlay the ordeal into a promotion to the presidency, for in those days the vice president was truly the second man of the republic.

This early pattern still haunts the dreams of modern vice presidents, to no useful effect. Ask Richard Nixon or Walter Mondale -- or Hubert Humphrey if he were still with us.

George Bush has been treated humanely by Ronald Reagan, as was Mondale by Jimmy Carter. But even this is uncommon. Nixon, while trying to run for president in 1960 as a vice presidential insider, looked up one day to hear Dwight Eisenhower telling reporters that it would take him 10 minutes to recall any important decision Nixon helped make. And the implication was that 10 minutes would be far too short.

Hubert Humphrey endured agonies of humiliation from Lyndon Johnson, but then found the Johnson legacy a fatal albatross in 1968. Carter struggled to find useful things for Mondale to do. Doing them was worth exactly 13 electoral votes in 1984.

A modern vice presidential resume, in fact, is what you might call the 13-vote resume.

It says something of Bush's lack of imagination that he stubbornly proclaims his duty to button his lips in behalf of Ronald Reagan because he might otherwise spring a geyser of state secrets. For the sake of the chase, the press connives in this patent nonsense.

George Bush headed a "crisis-management team" that, so far as anyone knows, was given no crises to manage. He wrote, he claims, a great report on the containment of terrorism that was ignored. All quite routine. As to high policy, Bush appears to have been a fifth wheel and no more. There isn't even any solid evidence that Bush, unlike Nixon during Eisenhower's 1955 heart attack, played a role when Reagan was disabled by gunfire. Jim Baker minded the store.

And yet Bush insists on betting the farm, politically, on the unpersuasive proposition that voters will see him as a vital player. And the pretense is costing him a pretty penny. When Bush portrays himself as a kingpin, he condemns himself to silence on what he said about arms for ayatollahs and when he said it.

This sets up a get-Bush game, a no-win game for him. If he wasn't climbing the walls about Iran, his judgment is fatally flawed and he can't be trusted in the Oval Office. If he says too loudly that he was a dissenter like George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger (who were, in any case, disregarded), he rats on Reagan. If he keeps quiet, he feeds the suspicion that he was as daffy as Oliver North or John Poindexter.

Why? Based on what we know or can infer about this and most administrations, the likelihood is that Bush kept as quiet as a mouse -- that he was savvy enough to know that a vice president's views on matters not under his jurisdiction are less than useful or welcome.

Yet Bush pursues the usual suicidal strategy, which calls for a vice president to picture himself as a major player, a big boy whose advice was sought and heard but whose lips are sealed by executive privilege or some other constitutional humbug.

Why do vice presidents continually do this to themselves? The myth Bush is pushing is not really believed by voters -- or if believed it is not given much weight. And for good reason. There is little evidence that vice presidents matter, unless presidents die in office. And even if you're the president's potential successor, advice without responsibility for the consequences matters very little.

Yet vice presidents, Bush hardly being the first, insist on pretending otherwise, presumably because the alternative is intolerably embarrassing. The alternative is to come before the voters as a confessed Throttlebottom, a stand-in for four to eight years, whose main function was to remind a president of his mortality and break an occasional tie in the Senate.

This is too much for vanity to bear, but might be better politics than pretending to have mattered. You might think a vice president would at least take an occasional flyer on it, since, based on the recent record, there seems little to lose and maybe something to gain.