At the airport the other day, I ran into a journalist who'd written something I thought both wrong and unfair. I said as much, to which she responded that I am often wrong, too.

I got on the plane, thought about that and concluded she was right in at least one case. I had written that George Bush had won his debate with Geraldine Ferraro. I would now like to take that back.

My reason for declaring Bush the winner was based solely on foreign policy. He seemed to know what he was talking about, and Ferraro did not. All I could think of at the time was Ferraro's becoming president during a foreign policy crisis and lacking the knowledge and experience to deal with it.

But now I am pondering the much more likely prospect that it will be Bush who will inherit the presidency. Not only is Ronald Reagan almost certain to win reelection, but he will be 74 in February, nearly 78 at the end of his next term. Reagan's recent quip aside, age is not so much an issue as a reality. It's no laughing matter.

And there's been nothing funny about Bush's conduct. All vice presidents are lackeys, required to support policies that they may privately oppose, so Bush is excused for being a Reagan cheerleader, although his sheer squeaky exuberance can get under your skin. He is the Liberace of American politics.

But the sad fact is that Bush has consistently shown a lack of character. That's reprehensible in a politician, frightening in a president. He thinks of truth the way Sportin' Life of "Porgy and Bess" did of a woman: it's a sometime thing. Recently Bush was asked in a Detroit television interview whether he approved of his staff wearing buttons that read, "Kick Ass, George!" To this, Bush responded by saying he doesn't have "any control over that staff. . . . I wish I did sometimes."

I grant you, this small matter hardly compares with some of the other issues of the campaign. But no one can believe that George Bush, a parody of machismo, does not have control over his staff. That is, as they like to say on television, a controversial statement. In other words, it's a lie.

Taken by itself, the incident would not be worth mentioning. But there is a pattern here. Bush, after all, is the one who coined the term "voodoo economics" to describe Reagan's economic program -- and then denied he had said it. Similarly, Bush also conveniently forgot that he once differed with the president about abortion. The press had to dig out the old stories to remind the vice president where he once stood on such an emotional and important issue. Those incidents should have told us something about Bush. Nevertheless, it came as something of a surprise to see him doubled over in semantic pain, attempting to explain what he meant when he accused Ferraro of saying American Marines had died in "shame." Bush hid in the dictionary. A person with any character at all would have merely apologized for wrongly characterizing an opponent's statement -- and then gotten on with the campaign. This, in fact, is what President Reagan did after seemingly blaming the Carter administration for the latest Beirut bombing. He called Jimmy Carter and explained. But Bush, who confuses grace with weakness, could not bring himself to say "sorry" to Ferraro.

Many politicians stretch the truth, but Bush does it with arrogance. He says things that both he and we know are not true. His claims that he never said "voodoo economics" or differed with Reagan on abortion or used "shame" to mean what we all know it does have an unstated tag line -- "What are you going to do about it?" It's the response of a man who thinks truth and political expediency are one.

"You are on something the American people are on the other side of," he told the Detroit interviewer. The meaning is clear: to Bush, truth is the sum of the votes on Election Day.

Foreign policy expertise is important. But a debate does not end when the 90 minutes are up. It continues for as long as the issues raised in it are debated. One of those issues now is character. It's at least as important as foreign policy expertise. The question no longer concerns what George Bush knows. The question now is what we know about him.