On the Dan Rather-George Bush shoot-out: Mr. Bush was obviously spoiling for a fight, and Mr. Rather gave it to him. Good for Mr. Rather. It made for better television -- and better journalism -- than "Mr. Vice President, tell us about your vision to make America more competitive" or some fluff like that. LANCE COMPA Takoma Park

I shall not soon forget "Big Chief" Dan Rather's ill-fated attempt to massacre George Bush the other night at a nationally televised Little Bighorn. Fortunately, history did not repeat itself. This time, the good guys won handily.

But the headline in The Post's story reporting the incident {front page, Jan. 26} was misleading. Mr. Bush and Mr. Rather did not "clash over Iran." They clashed over moral and ethical principles. Somehow the article on this historic confrontation missed that.

The nine minutes of prime-time verbal pugilism leave no doubt in my mind that Mr. Rather and CBS suffer from the delusion that in all events the end justifies the means. It is this obdurate attitude over which Mr. Bush and Mr. Rather came to blows -- not the vice president's role in the so-called Iran-contra affair.

Anyone who viewed Mr. Rather's unsuccessful hatchet job has to be convinced that the vice president was more than just a little surprised at the content of the Iran-contra compendium that preceded the live interview. If, as The Post reported, CBS had in fact made it "explicitly clear" to Mr. Bush and his aides "how the interview would go," then I submit that Mr. Bush would have politely refused the interview in the first place. Mr. Bush has discussed ad nauseam his involvement -- and the lack thereof -- in the Iran-contra affair, and he undoubtedly felt no need to answer to Mr. Rather in that regard. For Mr. Rather to suggest, therefore, that Mr. Bush was "absolutely not" misled about the nature of the interview should be an insult to the intelligence of anyone who viewed it.

No matter how you slice it, Mr. Rather's specious protestations of innocence are just baloney. Mr. Rather avers that "he and others at CBS {are} 'at peace' with themselves over their conduct in preparing the interview." Ha!

History and the American people will judge Mr. Bush. Mr. Rather may also, but I hope no one will bother to listen to or care what he has to say about it. Finally, if there is anyone left who doubts the backbone and inner fortitude of George Bush (are you paying attention, George Will?), then he missed the other night's main event. Just ask Dan Rather -- the vice president had him for lunch. JOHN M. HOPPER JR. Washington

With hunting over for the year, it looks like it's now open season on the media, judging by the nationwide applause for the bashing of CBS anchor Dan Rather and Des Moines Register editor James Gannon. The editorial "Broadcast News" {Jan. 27} fuels this phenomenon by focusing on Mr. Rather's contentiousness.

If I could confront the presidential candidates, I too would press them for answers if they attempted to divert my attention from a potential vulnerability by digressing. Residents of Iowa and New Hampshire can easily put questions to the candidates. But most of us -- particularly those in the Super Tuesday states where a media campaign will be waged -- must depend on surrogate interviewers.

The public has become accustomed to "kid gloves" treatment of officials by the press, fostered to a great extent by the media's lack of access to the president. Opportunities consist of extremely rare press conferences, plus the sporadic questioning barely discernible over the roar of the presidential helicopter.

Journalism at its best is more than a repetition of what the candidates say. It's a tough probing of discrepancies and reasoning. If we can't have an "open season" on the candidates, how are we accurately to judge their records and their qualifications? If they can't stand the heat, they should get out of the kitchen -- and off the tube and out of the race. ELLEN DUDLEY Chevy Chase

Dan Rather has done the impossible. He has made Sam Donaldson look like a gentleman. Mr. Rather's totally unprofessional, arrogant attack on the vice president explains why so many Americans feel apprehensive about the power of the press.

First Amendment rights are fine, but what about First Amendment responsibilities? Can't the press exercise any self-control? Are there no limits to its pompous self-righteousness? DON R. KENDALL Easton, Md.

After listening to the interview between Dan Rather and George Bush, I can only say: "How would Mr. Rather's predecessor, Walter Cronkite, have handled this interview?" It would have been as different as night and day. Why can't CBS interviewers such as Dan Rather, Lesley Stahl and others copy the dignity and politeness of CBS' one great TV personality -- Walter Cronkite? I still remember Roger Mudd's interview of Sen. Edward Kennedy when he was a presidential candidate -- it did not have the depth of Mr. Rather's rudeness, however. And I've heard Lesley Stahl question Secretary of State George Shultz in an unladylike manner, but men are too polite to female interrogators.

Oh, CBS is not alone to blame -- many of us can do without Sam Donaldson of ABC. Even John Chancellor of NBC, when he moderated the Democratic presidential candidates' debate in New Hampshire, was unfair in introducing Gary Hart.

It's easy to see why Mikhail Gorbachev refused to be interviewed by Dan Rather. NBC's Tom Brokaw was a diplomat in conducting the interview.

Vice President Bush's rating will gain, believe me. BERNICE FALLWELL Bethesda