Mr. Continuity

THE argument is persuasive: If the times remain good and President Reagan remains highly popular, the voters will want a continuance of the Reagan years -- and that they will find in the President's right-hand man, his vice-president, the one to extend the Reagan administration. Vice-President George Bush is certainly convinced of that thesis -- to the point where, barring the emergence of one negative factor, a failing economy, he intends to reach out for this ``continuity'' vote.

Tall, slim George Bush lies back in his chair with both feet propped on his desk. His office in the White House is only a breath away from the Oval Office. Usually he spends from one-third to two-thirds of his day moving in and out of the President's presence, as he confers on just about every issue facing Mr. Reagan.

But this day Mr. Bush is not panting. The President is at the summit. And without what the vice-president calls his ``interaction'' with the President, he can be relatively relaxed. He points out that, ``contrary to public perception,'' a vice-president doesn't take on more responsibility when the President is abroad, ``not when the President can have instant communication with anyone he wants to talk to here and with much of his staff and key Cabinet members with him.'' From our interview:

The two of us sat together some 20 years ago when you first were considering a run for Congress. What have you learned about yourself since then?

I remember that get-together well. I hope I've changed. I think I have a steadier and more mature outlook as well as a clearer kind of vision of the country and where I would want it to go. I think I'm a better judge of people and less frantic about life than I was 20 years ago. I've always been a pretty good talker. I hope I'm a better listener.

You have always had a lot of enthusiasm. Do you still have that spring in your step that you had when you started in public life?

If you are talking about zest for living -- absolutely. I feel as I've gotten older that I have much more for which to be grateful -- many more blessings to count. And, you know, hopefully, more that I can offer.

If you decide to run for president, you know that there is a lot of vilification as well as praise that lies ahead.

I had a little experience in that a year ago. I know what to expect; I know what it takes out of one -- and out of his family. I understand: You might lose, you might get criticized. But it's part of our business.

What, then, would be the major consideration in making your decision about running?

How things look in the country, and . . .

Whether you could make a difference?

Oh, no question about that. I've concluded in my mind that I would.

Let's look at the presidency as an institution. Is it getting to be too big a job for one man?

No. You hear much less of this kind of talk now than you did during the Carter administration. You don't hear that now, because of the way the President has demonstrated throughout -- making decisions and sticking with them and adhering to certain principles -- that leadership is back. Jimmy Carter went through extraordinarily difficult times, and that created the perception that the job was too big for any one person.

Mr. Reagan is perceived to be a strong President. Why?

What makes him a strong President is he keeps his sights on a handful of fundamentals -- fundamentals he had campaigned on and themes he took to the American people, and they are: peace through strength, decentralization, less regulation, trying to control spending, holding the line on taxes, firmness in going after criminals and trying to help victims, improving education -- a handful of themes -- and he continually keeps them in focus. This doesn't mean he can't compromise. But what it does is t o project his adherence to principle.

Is it an approach that you might emulate?

I would try to -- because he has restored the concept of American leadership. It's worked. And he's done it without shouting at people or wringing his hands.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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