IT COULD HAVE BEEN a perfunctory, nice-to-see-you visit to a classroom by the wife of the vice president, but Barbara Bush and the children of Emery Elementrary School in Northeast were having too much fun the other day sharing stories of their love affairs with books. On paper, Mrs. Bush is listed as a member of the Reading Is FUNdamental board of directors but, in fact, she is much more than a fancy namer on a charity letterhead. Mrs. Bush is no stranger to genuine fieldwork; when her husband was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, she gave two days a week to work in a New York City cancer ward. Now she is taking to the schools of this region -- and vice versa.

"I've thought a lot about the projects I would concentrate on," Mrs. Bush says, "and I can't think of one thing that could help our country more than reading. No child should be deprived of reading." In the classrooms, this enthusiasm is clearly infectious, as children in grades 1 though 6 openly approach her to talk about reading that they have enjoyed and to receive free books from the RIF distribution program. In the city alone, RIF has made avid readers out of thousands of young students, and with the help of Mrs. Bush, other workers, individual and corporate contributors and the United Black Fund, more than 200,000 books will be distributed to D.C. public school students from pre-kindergarten to high school.

The beauty of this program as well as the contribution of Mrs. Bush is in its directness -- no endless series of planning meetings or busywork, no splashy annual appearance at a fancy "do," but face-to-face, on-the-scene help that delivers immediate, visible results.There is yet another benefit from this process, for it can generate a new appreciation in official circles for Washington as a community of local people. And if Barbara Bush develops a soft spot for this city and its residents, people here will understand -- and remember.