WE do not know how George Bush will turn out as president, but he is proving to be a surprisingly graceful and astute president-in-waiting. Mr. Bush, after all, is the candidate who, particularly during the early days of the campaign, found it difficult to get much respect. His critics charged him with mediocrity, with being too weak, perhaps even lacking commitment to the presidential race. For a while in the primaries he looked as though he might be ousted by fellow Republican Bob Dole. Then later, Democratic contender Michael Dukakis outstripped Bush in the early days of the campaign.
The turnabout came with Bush's decisive acceptance speech at the Republican convention. Under the skilled hand of James Baker III, Bush's campaign then gained momentum, while the Dukakis campaign zigged and zagged defensively.
Throughout it all, Mr. Dukakis tried to convince the voters that Bush wasn't up to the presidency. As it turned out, the electorate decided that it was Dukakis who wasn't up to the presidency.
So today, Dukakis sits in the Massachusetts governor's office in Boston wrestling with a major mess in the state's finances, while Bush plans his ascendancy to the presidency.
It is a presidential transition process that Bush is handling well. On the one hand, he is being properly deferential to the incumbent. He is being careful to remind everybody that until Jan. 20, Ronald Reagan, not George Bush, is president. Thus when Bush has been present at presidential meetings, he has been particularly careful to stress that he is there in a vice-presidential capacity. When reporters pressed Bush for his views on Gorbachev initiatives, he diplomatically responded that he ``supports the President's position.''
On the other hand, Bush is carving out a quietly forceful position that belies the earlier image of indecisiveness. True, he is doing it with the New England reserve that perhaps comes more naturally to him than Texan braggadocio. But he is coming across as a man moving at his own pace while remaining careful not to overshadow an immensely popular incumbent president.
He has moved to rebuild fences with Senator Dole, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and even Michael Dukakis.
Although there has been delay in naming a new secretary of defense, he has appointed a steady stream of officials to his administration hailed as competent and individuals of integrity.
He has been more available to the press than during the presidential campaign, and has injected into his press conferences a wry and occasionally self-deprecating humor that goes over well.
He has not felt pressured - despite urging from some politicians and columnists - to respond prematurely to such developments as Gorbachev's announced unilateral arms reductions. This is a Soviet initiative that needs careful analysis and observation. Bush should not be stampeded into ad hoc reaction, and he is resisting that temptation.
He is handling with discretion his campaign albatross, Vice-President-elect Dan Quayle.
Finally, he and his family are coping with their propulsion into fame with dignity. He is avoiding on the one hand the pomposity that sometimes overtakes new presidents, as well as the sometimes artificial-seeming ``everyman'' image projected by Jimmy Carter. For the moment Bush seems to project a kind of middle picture as a graceful ``nice guy.'' This week's photos of him around the family Christmas tree with Barbara, his wife, and Millie, the dog, do not hurt.