Washington — Nelson Rockefeller always said he would never take the job of vice-president because he didn't want to become standby equipment. He even turned down Hubert Humphrey when given a chance to take the second spot on the 1968 Democratic ticket. He wasn't about to become a Democrat. But, even more, he simply had no desire to be a vice-president.
Then, inexplicably, Rockefeller not only accepted President Ford's invitation to take the No. 2 post but he did it with that special burst of enthusiasm that he usually reserved for some big government project of his making.
Rockefeller, on moving in as v-p seemed to be dazzled by the view. Ford was telling him that the two of them would operate as a team. Rockefeller's long-time associate and protege, Henry Kissinger, was running foreign policy. And Rocky, with another sidekick, Jim Cannon, heading the President's domestic council, was acting as if he were about to take over the Ford government, or at least to play an exceptionally strong role in the Ford administration.
It didn't happen that way, of course. And Joseph E. Persico, in his splendid new biography of Rockefeller (''The Imperial Rockefeller'') recalls this story of the newly appointed vice-president, with his dreams of wielding influence, and how so soon thereafter he began to lose out in his power play. Dropped from the prospective 1976 ticket, the former New York governor and perennial presidential candidate soon was going home to his Pocantico estate with his tail pretty much between his legs.
Looking back, it seems so very strange and ironic: those GOP conservatives who pushed Rockefeller off the ticket did so because they said this ''moderate'' or ''liberal'' vice-president was imposing both his influence and his ideology on the Ford administration. In truth, Rockefeller was having very little impact. Ford wouldn't permit it. And neither would his politically adroit chief of staff , Donald Rumsfeld, who very soon cut off Rockefeller at the pass.
Now, as if history could be replayed, there are some GOP right-wingers who are saying that the ''moderate'' or ''liberal'' George Bush is having much too much influence on President Reagan.
There is no talk of dropping Bush from the 1980 ticket, however. The reason: Bush, unlike Rockefeller, is not trying to make any mark for himself. His favorite saying is, ''I'm not going to make any waves.'' He says it so often to reporters that the expression would be trite by now if it had not been already.
Vice-President Mondale talked about keeping a ''low profile'' under Carter. And, until the 1980 primaries, he pretty much did. But Mondale was much more noticeable - and noticed - than Bush, who, as some of his supporters complain, is almost invisible.
Bush is influential, highly so, much as he would try to indicate otherwise. He meets with the President very frequently, often several times on the same day. And he provides advice on both domestic issues and foreign affairs.
Bush knows that he is not the darling of the far right. ''But,'' as one of the vice-president's aides puts it, ''the President really doesn't owe the right-wingers anything. Their first choice for president was Phil Crane. Then they moved to John Connally. Finally, they backed Reagan. He was their third choice.''
Actually, as Bush's associates point out, he does not hold any broad political views that differ much from those of the President. Reagan wants a big military buildup. Bush has long pushed for this. Reagan wants less federal government, less government spending. Bush has long held a similar position. Why then is Bush thought more liberal than Reagan? It's difficult to say. As one of Bush's friends explains it: ''Bush, like Jerry Ford, feels there's plenty of room for moderates and liberals in the party. And both of them will say so. But Reagan, on the other hand, usually sounds as if he were trying to appeal only to conservatives.''
Bush himself says he is a ''conservative.'' He also says on occasion that he is, additionally, a pragmatist. But so will Reagan. Both men seek practical solutions to tough problems.
Bush does not by any means feel that he is simply standby equipment, which Rockefeller turned out to be. He believes that his experience and abilities are being fully tapped.
If Bush is hopeful that the vice-presidency can be a springboard from which he can leap to the presidency, he certainly isn't saying so. Of course, by not saying so -- by being exceedingly quiet -- he is practicing the kind of politics best calculated to keep Reagan behind him and get him where he would like to go: sharing the ticket again in 1984 and heading the ticket in 1988.