Vice President Bush, asserting his truthfulness has been vindicated in the Iran-contra hearings, said yesterday that his judgment in the affair cannot be fairly criticized by 1988 presidential campaign opponents because he had been "denied information" about what was going on.

In his first interview since the completion of public hearings on the Reagan administration's worst foreign policy embarrassment, Bush blamed the congressional investigating committees for the public's "distorted view" that "I was lying."

"They {members of the Iran-contra panels} just kept pounding away that everything was wrong, everything was evil," starting with the idea that "the president must have known about the diversion of funds" from Iran arms sales to aid the Nicaraguan contras, Bush said. "I've said all along I didn't know about the diversion of funds, and I think people may now understand I was telling the truth."

Bush said he had not advised the president against selling arms to Iran, in part because he never heard strong objections to that policy.

"If I'd have sat there and heard {Secretary of State} George Shultz and Cap {Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger} express it {opposition} strongly," he said, "maybe I would have had a stronger view. But when you don't know something, it's hard to react . . . . We were not in the loop."

Bush said he had no idea there was anything like a "raging fight" between the two Cabinet secretaries and top officials of the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency over the arms sales. Asked repeatedly if he was unaware of the Shultz-Weinberger objections, Bush said, "I didn't attend the meeting where that was brought up, apparently with great vehemence. I was off at the Army-Navy football game" on Dec. 7, 1985, "and none of them ever came to me" at other times to discuss their objections.

Bush did not mention a subsequent meeting on Jan. 7, 1986, where, according to their testimony and other evidence, Shultz and Weinberger again expressed their strong disapproval of arms sales to Iran to President Reagan. Weinberger testified last week that he and Shultz "made all of the same arguments {against the arms sales} with increasing force" at that session. Bush was present at that meeting, and according to Shultz, joined then-national security adviser John M. Poindexter and then-CIA Director William J. Casey in favoring more arms sales to Iran.

Asked last night about that Jan. 7 meeting, Bush's chief of staff, Craig L. Fuller, said, "If he {Bush} was there for all of it, he doesn't recall it as a showdown session, and it's possible he wasn't there for all of it."

The hearings produced no testimony indicating that Bush was vocal at any point in the discussions on the arms sales, even though he was a veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, the head of the administration's task force on terrorism and was known to have strong views on the importance of American interests in the Persian Gulf.

When asked if a 1988 opponent might capitalize on the fact that Bush, by his own account, stood mute as the plan moved toward the embarrassing end that Shultz and Weinberger had predicted, Bush said, "I'd say that if you are denied information, you can't make a proper judgment. I think the American people are fair. They know you learn from experience. You learn even when you're denied information . . . . And they know the realities of the job I'm in. I'm not the president."

Bush said yesterday that he never discussed the arms sales with Casey, who died last May. Despite the fact that Bush had headed the same agency in the Ford administration, he said, "Casey didn't talk to me about anything. The CIA director doesn't report to the vice president."

In the interview, the front-runner for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination had high praise for Poindexter and former NSC aide Oliver L. North, but said it was "far too premature" to be talking of presidential pardons for them. "They've not been formally accused of breaking any laws," he said.

Of Marine Lt. Col. North, Bush said: "He did a marvelous job of explaining to the country what is at stake in Central America. He made some mistakes, but he is motivated by high purpose, not any selfishness or any venality."

Of Rear Adm. Poindexter, he said: "I have a high regard for John. When he said the buck stopped there, that was a big burden, but I believe he was reflecting the truth, telling the truth."

Taking a broad view of presidential discretion in foreign policy, Bush said he was "satisfied" that the Boland Amendment -- which outlawed the use of appropriated funds by agencies involved in intelligence activities to help the contras -- did not apply to the NSC staff. He also said no "president should be precluded from soliciting" aid for groups such as the contras from private citizens or foreign governments "if he feels strongly about a certain policy and it's not prohibited by law."

Other Reagan administration officials have disagreed about whether Boland applied to the NSC staff. Robert C. McFarlane, the national security adviser until December 1985, said he was sure the amendment did apply, but Poindexter, his successor, said it did not.

Bush said he intended in his campaign to make an issue of congressional actions that have caused "erosion of executive power in foreign policy." He said there must be "flexibility" in notification of Congress about covert activities, but made clear that if he became president, he would instruct aides to withhold no information from him in the interests of assuring his "plausible deniability."

Poindexter cited that as a motive for not telling Reagan about the diversion of funds to the contras. Bush said, "I think I'd rather know and make the judgments accordingly . . . . I'd want the facts. I wouldn't want somebody to protect me from myself."

Bush confirmed that he will make a formal announcement of his candidacy in October, but said he was undecided whether to join the other Republican contenders in a two-hour televised forum with William F. Buckley Jr., scheduled for Oct. 28.

He said he had committed to five debates, starting with NBC-TV in December, and "that seems like quite a few. You have to ask, how much time do ou spend debating?"

Bush said he would emphasize education as the nation's top priority but not in a way that would "get the federal government back in" as a major source of funds. He said there would be no "radical departures" from the basic principles of the Reagan policy when he becomes an announced candidate, adding, "If the Democrats get pulled to the left {by their nominating process} as I think they will, we'll have the same kind of debate {in the general election} we had in 1984."

Bush's only specific proposal on education, offered in an Indianapolis speech last week, is for tax-exempt federal education bonds, encouraging families to save for future college costs.

Bush acknowledged that unless limits were set, the tax-exempt bonds might provide a bigger break for wealthy families than for anyone else, but said "a lot of detail on the proposal has not been worked out."

Bush spoke with some anger of published accounts suggesting that he or his national security aide, Donald P. Gregg, may have had knowledge of the clandestine efforts to sustain the anti-Sandinista forces in Nicaragua after Congress ended U.S. military aid. Last December Bush's office released a chronology which showed that Gregg had discussed difficulties faced by the secret contra resupply effort with a former CIA agent involved in it in August 1986, during the congressional ban on direct U.S. aid. Gregg then convened a meeting to convey the former agent's concerns to other government officials.

"The question of telling the truth is awfully important to me," Bush said. "It's sacrosanct. And I found it troubling when people thought I was lying."

He said he was "absolutely" confident that no evidence would emerge challenging his truthfulness and seemed equally confident that his role -- or lack of role -- in the administration's decision-making would not be a liability in the coming campaign.