Vice President George Bush hosted a luncheon for reporters the other day to talk about his recent trip to Africa, but what with talk of Ted Kennedy and Bush's detour to Moscow for Leonid Brezhnev's funeral, he had a hard time directing our attention to the subject. Finally, he asked: "Does anybody want to hear about my trip to Africa?"

One reason Bush may have had trouble expounding on his African report was that at a time when we are being belabored almost daily with bad news -- Soviet nuclear "superiority," "communist subversion" in the Caribbean, the dangerous deadlock in the Middle East, disintegration in the Atlantic Alliance -- we were being asked to accept from Africa, if not good news, at least the absence of bad news. In the seven black African states he had visited, Bush found that the United States "stands pretty well. . . . Our bilateral relations are good. . . . The Africans are not turning East, they are turning West."

Generalizations aside, Bush was offering the makings of what could conceivably wind up as a success story for an administration that does not have all that much in the way of diplomatic successes to celebrate. The story, far from its conclusion, has to do with the top U.S. diplomatic priority in Africa: a negotiation conducted in constructive collaboration with Canada and three European allies (the British, the French, and the West Germans) for the independence, under black rule, of Namibia, now under harsh and heavy South African control. The key to the administration's controversial strategy would be to reward South Africa for removing its military presence from a neighboring free Namibia by insisting on the removal of some 20,000 Cuban troops from Angola. That's been the line in private negotiations.

But in the course of his trip, Bush broke new ground by going public with this "linkage" -- and was roundly denounced. In Lagos, the Nigerian vice president used a dinner toast to denounce the demand for the departure of the Cuban troops as "a ruse to further delay the independence of Namibia." Then Bush made the same call for linkage in Nairobi, and was denounced in the same way by the president of Kenya.

So where's the good news? It lies in a proposition that must be taken on its face: that these and other black African leaders are only saying what they are compelled to say out loud -- out of deference to Angolan and African nationalism. Discreetly, Bush and members of his party insist, some of the same African leaders took them aside to urge that the United States go right on insisting publicly on the "Cuban connection" to a Namibian settlement. At the lunch, Bush said as much: "What I heard privately, almost uniformly, was that Africans don't want Cuban troops in Africa."

Angola is a sanctuary for the forces of the South West Africa People's Organization, which is leading the fight for an independent Namibia; this makes it a target for South African raids on SWAPO camps within its borders. If Angola has an interest in a Namibian settlement (which would force South African troops back into South Africa), the South Africans, according to U.S. authorities, need the Cuban withdrawal as something to show for yielding up Namibia to independence.

Administration officials don't argue that this quid pro quo assures a Namibian agreement. The diplomacy is incredibly complex and delicate. It has dragged on for more than a year. But a State Department official insists, "We are on the 10-yard line, and while the last 10 yards will be the hardest, that's further along than we have gotten in the Middle East in 30 years."