The optimistic statement "George Bush is not as silly as he frequently seems" now seems comparable to Mark Twain's statement that Wagner's music is better than it sounds. Bush's recent New York performance suggests that although the 1988 nomination is his to lose, he has a gift for doing things like that.

Before his New York debacle, his most recent splash was in the waning days of the 1984 campaign when he had debates with Geraldine Ferraro and himself, winning only the former, and only sort of winning it. His performance earned -- yes, earned -- him The Washington Post's designation as "the Cliff Barnes of American politics," a reference to the "Dallas" character whom The Post characterized as "blustering, opportunistic, craven and hopelessly ineffective all at once." Kinder critics referred to Bush's "hyperkinesis."

After the debate, he bragged about how he had "kicked a little ass." Actually, he had applied his foot firmly to the inside of his mouth as when he claimed Walter Mondale and Ferraro had said the Marines killed by the Beirut truck bomb had "died in shame." His charge was flatly false, and if it was not initially a lie it quickly became one as he refused to retract it.

That rancid episode is relevant to Bush's New York shambles because, yet again, the question of his intention arises: Did he intend to talk rot? It is hard to believe that premeditation was involved in what he said about Mario Cuomo but, alas, he was not improvising: he was reading from a prepared text. Does he read such texts before rising to speak?

A few days before Bush addressed the New York State Conservative Party, Cuomo, no slouch in the silliness sweepstakes, said he might run for president to disprove ethnic "slurs," by which he means speculation that an Italian American cannot win. That is among the silliest reasons ever offered for trying to become leader of the Free World. Besides, speculation about the consequences of a particular ethnicity hardly constitutes a "slur."

Cuomo is right to raise the matter of the sort of thinking that I have heard phrased this way: "If Cuomo looked like Bush, he would be the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination." Ah, but what if Cuomo had the handicap of sounding like Bush? This is how Bush sounded when characterizing Cuomo's thought in New York:

"He's telling us to ignore the millions of blacks, Jews, Irish, Italians, Latins and Poles who shattered the bonds of discrimination and built this great land. . . ."

You blew it, Bush -- you blew the Samoan American vote by neglecting to pander to them too. But, unwilling to leave wretched enough alone, Bush slogged on:

"Worst of all, he's telling us to be ashamed to stand up and be proud of this great land. . . ."

There he goes again, dishonestly tossing around the idea of shame. What Bush said is gibberish, but not just gibberish. It is a lie. And it suggests how bare Bush's mental cupboard is of themes. He began by accusing Cuomo of "divisiveness," another echo of the Ferraro debate, in which Bush accused Mondale of "telling the American people to divide (by) class -- rich and poor." Bush's syntax was as muddled as his thought.

But Bush's low point came with this smarmy sentence: "I can tell you one thing about the difference between a liberal politician and a conservative one: Gov. Ronald Reagan kept cop-killers in jail." That was a ten-thumbed attempt to squeeze political advantage from a complicated case in which Cuomo recommended clemency for a man who has spent 18 years in jail and who may -- but who never was found to -- have directly killed a policeman. Among those who have campaigned for clemency is William F. Buckley Jr., not hitherto famous as coddler of "cop-killers." Anyway, anyone can tell Bush one difference between a real conservative and a charlatan: a real conservative does not consider an office such as the vice presidency a license to meddle in a state's system of criminal justice.

The unpleasant sound Bush is emitting as he traipses from one conservative gathering to another is a thin, tinny "arf" -- the sound of a lapdog. He is panting along Mondale's path to the presidency.

When Norman Mailer published a particularly dreadful novel, a critic -- an optimist -- titled his review "Mailer Hits Bottom." Realists replied: Not unless he (Mailer) never again gets near a typewriter. Concerning Bush, optimists say: Well, er, perhaps in New York he got the demagoguery out of his system. Realists say: That was not a momentary dereliction of taste; that was part of a pattern.