George Bush has gone to war -- again. Characteristically, he described his encounter with Dan Rather in terms of the ultimate test of courage: "combat." His supporters have seized upon their own macho analogy -- the prizefight. Congressional Quarterly step aside. It's Ring magazine that will now rank George Bush.

For sure, Rather was unprofessional in his CBS Evening News interview with Bush. At times he was rude, and in saying that the arms sale to Iran "made us hypocrites in the eyes of the world," he leaped from reporting to commenting. But Rather is not running for president, and so questions about him -- whether he did or did not sandbag Bush -- are hardly in the same league as those about a potential president. Even an anchorman can't start a war.

The fact remains that Bush did not fully answer Rather's questions. In effect, the questions, too, were about courage. Did Bush stand up to President Reagan about the arms-for-hostages arrangement? Did he know that arms were being sold to Iran so that American hostages in Beirut would be freed? Did he know that profits from the sale were being diverted to the contras? These are questions that have to do with both policy and principle, and Bush's answers have been contradictory and unsatisfactory.

For instance, Bush told Rather he knew nothing about the swap, but appended that he "went along with it" because he was told that William Buckley, the kidnapped CIA station chief in Beirut, was being tortured to death. "So I erred. I erred on the side of getting those hostages out of there."

So which one is it? Did Bush, understandably, err on the side of compassion, or did he not know the arms were bribes to gain the release of Buckley and others? Is it possible that Bush listened to Secretary of State George Shultz vigorously argue against the scheme and then forgot all about it? Courage takes many forms; one of them, certainly, is a willingness to admit a mistake.

What Bush does not seem to understand (or understands all too well) is that questions about his role in the arms-for-hostages deal are symbolic. They are being asked about a man whose ideology and political values are unclear. For most of his career, Bush has been someone else's boy -- envoy to China, U.N. representative, GOP chairman, CIA director and, finally, Ronald Reagan's vice president. He ran against Reagan in 1980 as a moderate Republican and then, with gusto, embraced the president's platform.

On abortion, Bush has been inconsistent. The moral qualms he now proclaims were not so long ago nowhere in evidence. Possibly he changed his mind. If so, he has done so at least twice -- first saying he and Reagan's views were identical ("Put that down, mark that down.") and then, as the campaign approached, moderating them some. He now says he would countenance abortion in the event of rape, incest or if the mother's life is in danger. Wonderful! But what about the sanctity of life? Isn't a fetus produced by rape or incest a life too?

The issue with Bush is not -- and has never been -- physical courage. His World War II combat experience proves he's no coward. But Bush is not running for gunnery mate, and his TKO of the excitable and verbally inept Rather -- he hit himself harder than Bush ever did -- proves nothing. The vice president was well briefed by his seconds, and besides, he had control the moment CBS agreed to a live interview. There is hardly a county councilman who does not know that once you have the mike you have the power.

Bush evidences the machismo of a schoolyard bully. He came on defiantly with Rather, and the two of them fought over territory -- air time, in this case. It was precisely the tactic Bush used when Alexander Haig asked him to explain his position on the arms-for-hostages deal. Bush ate up the clock. Unheard, but nevertheless distinct, was the whining taunt of "make me." As for Bush's reference to Rather's six-minute sit-down strike, it was in the nature of a so's-your-mother rejoinder. What had it to do with the Iran-contra affair?

Bush's pummeling of Rather proves nothing. No one ever said George Bush did not have the courage to do what's necessary. He fought in a war. He lived through the agony of a daughter's death. He has campaigned and lost -- and then come back to campaign some more. He has courage. But does he have the courage of his convictions?