He was second choice for second man, and he wasn't sure how he got there. But it was okay by him.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, George Bush was where he'd wanted to be for the last two years. Well, almost. He'd always claimed he didn't want to be a vice presidential candidate.

He'd lied, Bush sheepishly said today in his first public appearance with Ronald Reagan, the Republican presidential nominee. "Can you ever remember a person running for president who would say he wanted to be vice president?"

Twelve hours earlier Bush had given up all hope of becoming Reagan's running mate. Gerald R. Ford was the man, all the networks were saying. Bush had gotten the word from a technician while locked away in a holding room waiting to make what he thought would be his only appearance before the GOP convention.

"When you hear that someone else has been selected, or appointed, that doesn't help you get up for a speech," he said.

The speech had gone well. So had the floor demonstration afterward. Bush, former ambassador and CIA director, had run long and hard for the top spot on the ticket. He had a lot of friends in the hall.

But he left thinking it was all over. He had had his moment in the limelight, and he headed back to his hotel, the Pontchartrain. He dropped by the Salamandre Bar in the lobby to pick up a mug of Stroh's beer to take to his room on the 19th floor.

His family, which campaigned so long and hard for him, was in the room. So were his old friend, Dean Burch, a political veteran; his campaign manager, James A. Baker III, and a handful of the most diehard members of his staff. All felt like they'd been run over by a truck. Bush went to bed.

But at 11:37 p.m., hours after Bush thought all was lost, the telephone rang. It was Reagan, just nominated for president by his party. The Ford deal had collapsed. Bush, ever the bridesmaid, was asked to be bridesmaid again.

It was, like most vice presidential selections, a match of convenience, not love. The campaign's polls showed he'd help in the Northeast, and among upper-income whites, who traditionally vote Republican, but aren't wild about the former California governor and ex-movie actor.

Nancy Reagan apparently wasn't pleased over the evening's event. Her face told it all when she stood on the podium as Reagan announced Bush as his running mate. She looked like a little girl who had just lost her favorite Raggedy Ann doll: sad, disappointed, almost crushed. Sen. Paul D. Laxalt, Reagan's campaign chairman, wrapped his arm around her shoulder, consoling her.

George and Barbara Bush had hardly known Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The two men met in a half dozen debates during the campaign. But that's hardly a way to cement a lasting friendship.

The two couples had breakfast together today in Reagan's 69th-floor suite in the Plaza Hotel. Everyone wanted to know how they got along.

"We've been talking a couple hours, and we didn't have a single cross word," Reagan told a news conference later.

What about their differences? They had, after all, been opponents for a long time. They'd disagreed on taxes, the Equal Rights Amendment and foreign policy. Bad words had passed. Bush comes from the moderate wing of the party; Reagan from the conservative. b

Bush didn't take the bait. "I'm not going to get nickeled-and dimed to death on little details," he said.

And what about being Reagan's second choice?

"What difference does it make?" Bush asked reporters. "It's irrelevant. I'm here. I believe Gov. Reagan wants me on his ticket."

The GOP ticket was off and running. George Bush couldn't have been more pleased.