Rep. Richard Gephardt, the House Democratic leader and a frequent critic of the Bush administration, is enjoying the opportunity to say a big "I told you so" to President Bush over the matter of aid to the Soviet Union.

Gephardt, who has his own presidential ambitions, was fairly low-key when he issued a statement commending the president for changing his position, but he clearly enjoyed the vindication that came nine months after making his own proposal for aid to the Soviets.In March, when the Missouri Democrat suggested an aid program, the administration jumped all over him.

"It's hard to figure out what he's up to," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, who went on to deride Gephardt as "the Maxwell Smart of politics."

What Gephardt said in March was that the United States should launch a bold policy of investment and trade to help bolster the efforts of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to reform the Soviet economy.

"We should waive trade restrictions such as Jackson-Vanik, . . . relax restrictions on high-tech exports and encourage private investment in the Soviet Union. We provide Export-Import Bank loans and OPIC assistance to China, why not to the Soviet Union?" he asked in a speech.

The administration said a loud "no" to the idea then, but last week Bush declared the Soviet Union is facing "tough times," and he announced an assistance package that will provide up to $1 billion in agriculture export credits to ease Moscow's food shortage.

The aid package is the largest ever offered any country. Under the program, the United States will guarantee payments up to $1 billion for Soviet purchases of U.S. farm products.

Bush also proposed that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund provide the Soviets access to their economic and financial expertise and said he has decided to establish a public-private medical assistance task force to help Moscow deal with its "acute, immediate shortages of pharmaceutical and basic medical supplies."

"It is very much in the national interest of the United States to see the Soviet Union succeed in their efforts to reform politically and to move to a free-market economic system," Bush said.

Gephardt thought so, too, back in March. "Stability, democracy and a market economy in the Soviet Union are in America's strong self-interest," he said at the time.

Commenting on Bush's action last week, Gephardt said, "Nine months ago when I made the recommendation which the president has adopted, the administration's reaction was, `Why?' This afternoon, they said, `Why not?' Today, I say well done."

Gephardt said it was not possible for the administration "to sustain a policy of passivity toward the reforms being made in the Soviet Union or the privatization being experienced by the Soviet people. America cannot stand on the sidelines as the Cold War era ends and the Soviet Union struggles to find its future."

Not surprisingly, the administration did not credit Gephardt with any foresight. Gephardt's complaints about administration policies have ruffled Bush's feathers more than once, and there is no love lost between the two. But in the world of Washington politics a good "I told you so" can sometimes be a satisfying experience.