IN interviews with Vice-President Bush over the years he held that office I tried on occasion to persuade him to part company with President Reagan's supply-side economics. During the l980 campaign, when fiercely contesting Reagan for the presidency, Bush had called Reagan's economic plan ``voodoo economics.'' But Mr. Bush would usually laugh and change the subject. He was the ever-loyal vice president, never breathing an opinion different from those expressed by the president. He often said that was the way a vice-president should conduct himself. That's when his critics started calling him a wimp.
Now Vice-President Quayle is showing that he is his own man and getting whaled by the same critics who bashed Bush. This time it's what the vice-president is saying that's stirring criticism. He's warning that the apparent rush to democracy and peace in Eastern Europe may not be all it seems.
So while the president holds out his hand to Gorbachev, the vice-president withholds his approval. Further, Mr. Bush supports Mr. Quayle's decision to speak out.
What's going on here?
First, the president knows that he has never been fully trusted by GOP conservatives. As vice-president he was continually under fire from right-wingers who charged Bush was soft on communism. When Reagan stopped talking tough about communists, the change was attributed by these conservatives to the influence of Bush and his friend, James Baker.
Now Bush is using Quayle as his messenger to Republicans who think he is encouraging Gorbachev too much. A former Reagan official explained this Bush ploy:
``It's much like Nixon opening mainland China. Nixon was trusted by the hawks in this country because he had been so hard on the communists through the years. So he could make that move - without fear of a tumultuous and divisive protest at home. Bush is not similarly trusted by the hawks. But by unleashing Quayle, Bush is sending out this reassurance to the hawks - that he knows what he's dealing with, that he will be cautious, that he won't go too far. In a way Quayle is Bush's Nixon.''
Second, there's a growing opinion in Washington that the president is heeding Richard Nixon's advice on more than one subject. The recent Bush decision to send envoys to China was a Nixon suggestion, it is said. Unleashing Quayle as an outspoken hawk, while the President was pursuing a more dovish course, is said to have originated in Nixon's fertile political mind.
At any rate, the Nixon precedent may well be sticking in Bush's thinking as he seeks to rehabilitate a vice-president who has been cast by critics as a weakling from the moment he came on the ticket.
It is true that Nixon was already the champion of the anti-communists before becoming vice-president. But in the No. 2 spot Nixon continued to enlarge that role. He antagonized millions of people, but also he became a significant vice-president.
At any rate, Bush is applauding Quayle's independent, anti-communist role. He's aware of his own progress from wimp to tough guy. And he thinks Quayle is on the right track for strengthening his image.
Bush says he has no plans to replace Quayle in l992. Why should he, from a political point of view - particularly if Quayle is able to build support from conservatives?
The obvious should now be said of and to Quayle: ``I've known Richard Nixon over the years - and known him well. And you're no Richard Nixon.''
Nixon looked like a villain. He played that part to the hilt in Watergate. Quayle is perceived by many as an innocent: the smiling, young fellow without a serious thought.
The hope within the Bush camp is that Quayle will mature on the job and will be perceived by the public in l992 as someone with strength and depth - someone who is presidential material.