A letter from a coauthor of Jack Anderson's column, Dale Van Atta, asking current and former Cabinet members to assess George Bush as vice president has drawn a stinging response from Education Secretary William J. Bennett.

Bennett, who released his letter to members of the news media, challenged Van Atta's assertion that Bush is "a mystery to the voters." As Bennett put it, "This is nonsense . . . . The public is quite capable of deciding what kind of president George Bush would be without the aid of yet one more column based on a few selected and, it appears, perhaps unattributed remarks."

Van Atta's letter, which went to 34 current and former members of the Reagan Cabinet, asked for assessments of how Bush operates in Cabinet meetings and offered anonymity to those who did not want to speak for the record.

The White House gave informal guidance to Cabinet members who called for advice about the letter, suggesting that President Reagan had set the precedent when he promised to remain neutral in the presidential primary season.

Bennett followed that line saying that such an assessment would be "inappropriate" after "{the} president's injunction to all his Cabinet members to stay neutral in the presidential race."

Bennett also took as a threat one passage in the Van Atta letter saying that "an unwillingness by people like yourself to take a position one way or another may send a negative message about Mr. Bush that may not be warranted."

"I cannot believe anyone will credit such a perverse interpretation, and I am confident that the American people will judge the vice president's distinguished record of public service on its merits," Bennett wrote.

Van Atta, asked for a response, said Bennett's letter was "an unfair interpretation" of the passage, which he said "may have been harsher than I intended for it to sound."

"Where Mr. Bennett is wrong is when he thinks it is wrong to ask for this information," Van Atta said. "All the other front-runners have a management record . . . records we can examine. All we are trying to do is examine how Mr. Bush has operated, not how he says he has operated.

"Also, it is very common for these same men to work with someone and maintain that it's confidential at the time and then in 10 or 15 years put it all in their memoirs," Van Atta said. "I think it's important for the electoral process that we know about Mr. Bush now."