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Barbara Bush

On the rubber-chicken circuit, Vice-President George Bush and his wife, Barbara, have plenty of opportunities to exchange knowing winks over their sherbet cups.

''Sometimes - well, almost all the time - there'll be an after-dinner speaker who reminds us of something funny,'' says the easily tickled ''second lady'' of the land. ''I look across at George and get laughing 'cause he knows what I'm thinking and I know exactly how it's going to grab him.''

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She gives a tasteful hoot at some recently remembered event, then adds a diplomatic postscript: ''Of course, I hope other people laugh at us, too.''

Get Barbara Bush started on her favorite subjects - her husband of almost 40 years and her family - and the well-timed one-liners and sometimes sarcastic asides fly freely. The New York socialite who left Smith College at age 19 to marry her handsome young naval officer says that after moving the family in and out of 30 different homes, she's just beginning to understand what her husband really meant when he told her early in their marriage: ''Stick with me and I'll show you the world.''

When he also let it be known that he intended to speak his mind instead of letting disagreements build up, Mrs. Bush concedes that she was devastated - at first.

''I must confess, it sort of surprised me that he would be so frank and say, 'I really don't like that.' And of course, I doubled up in hurt feelings at the time. But the truth is, that's what makes our marriage work - being able to talk. That, and the fact that he's so funny.''

In some ways, Barbara Bush brings to mind the suburban TV sitcoms of the '50s , those in which witty, pretty wives found fulfillment cleaning house and tending hearth for their brilliant husbands and all-American children. But in a recent Monitor interview with Mrs. Bush, there were reminders of a latter-day, consciousness-raised mom as well. - perhaps a less outrageous, more gracious version of the character portrayed by Bea Arthur in her award-winning series, ''Maude.''

The former women's club volunteer who campaigned quietly for her husband when he was running for the US presidency has emerged today as a breezily self-confident luncheon speaker and popular talk-show guest.

She's a handsome woman who's been quoted as saying that the many letters she gets encouraging her to dye her thick white hair a younger color make her ''mad as the dickens.'' Thanks in part to a deep tan that comes from weekend gardening and boating at the family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, the only makeup she wears is a soft shade of lipstick. Her light hazel eyes never blink or turn hesitantly away as she answers a reporter's questions. To those she doesn't like , she retorts, Maude-like, ''I think that's an awful question,'' or, ''You put that very negatively.''

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In the more than 1,200 days since her husband took office, Mrs. Bush estimates that she's spent 647 days out of the capital, traveling 211/2 times around the world to visit 46 states, 57 countries, and three territories to attend 287 Republican Party events, 231 fund-raisers on behalf of national literacy, and 47 gatherings to encourage volunteerism in America.

Last month saw publication of a slight book she ''co-authored'' with the family's cocker spaniel, C. Fred Bush, about the life of a political, globe-trotting pooch.

''My children used to put down 'housewife' for my occupation,'' she quips. ''Now I'm sure they write 'lecturer' or 'editor.' ''

When she's asked how else her five grown children would describe her today, Mrs. Bush is characteristically candid.

''In a marriage where one is so willing to take on responsibility and the other is so willing to keep the bathrooms clean, that's the way you get treated, '' she says of their growing-up days.

''Whenever there were any big decisions, the children always went to their father, probably because they'd always seen me as the - I hate to say 'laundress' - but as the nagging mother who said, 'Have you done your homework?' ''

But they don't treat her that way anymore, she continues, picking up managerial steam. ''When we were all out campaigning for George, it taught me that they were brilliant adults, and I think it taught them that I was an adult, too, because of the experiences we shared. I'd say that if you asked the children, they'd reply that I've grown in the last 10 years, and that I'm more appreciative of them now. I know I nag them less.''

Mrs. Bush adds that she and her husband keep in touch with their six grandchildren, ages two weeks to seven years, by telephone, by ''out-and-out bribery,'' and thanks to considerate daughters-in-law.

''The twins' mother tells them, 'Ganny's coming . . . . Here's a picture. . . . Look at Gampy on television,' so when we walk in the door, having not seen them in six months, they throw those cute little midget arms around our necks. Honestly, I just can't believe it sometimes.''

In addition to spending the month of August together in Maine this summer, the Bush family - minus grandchildren - will also travel to the Republican Party convention in Dallas. When it comes to politics, Mrs. Bush heels a strict party line, and she's also pretty vocal in her opposition to running a woman in the No. 2 spot on the ticket: ''After all, I like the vice-president we have.''

''But seriously,'' she adds, ''I think it's outrageous to talk about a woman for vice-president. I mean, if you can be vice-president, you can be president.

''I'm sure that I will vote for a woman for president - not because she's a woman, but because she's the best qualified person. And when I do, I know darn well that she'll be a Republican!''

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