If we heard it once, we heard it a thousand times during the presidential campaign that President-elect George Bush used to be an oil man, that he knows what it is to drill a well and meet a payroll, that he and Barbara and their dog packed up and drove down to Texas to seek their fortune in one room of a shotgun house.

That was useful, not because oil men are popular or because it really mattered a hoot to the conduct of the presidency whether Bush was an oil man, but because Bush has been identified as a Connecticut softy, a country club campaigner, an eastern Republican careerist who went around saying things like gosh and golly. It's hard to believe now, but six short months ago the president-elect of the United States was way behind in the polls, was being killed by the wimp factor and was the subject of almost as many demeaning jokes as Dan Quayle is today.The successful rehabilitation of George Bush, the transformation of this man from public twit to president is one of the stunning uphill political achievements of our era, exceeding, perhaps, even the election of Dan Quayle to the vice presidency. And one way they did it was to evoke images of Bush trudging across the Texas oil fields, meeting payrolls, cussing with roustabouts and slaving for grocery money so Barbara and the dog wouldn't starve back at the one-room hovel.

You needn't buy this image of Bush. He may have run an exceedingly hypocritical campaign. Besides, what'd they need the dog for? But it is important to remember that he is an oil man. Being a perennial errand boy for the Nixon and Reagan administrations is not a profession. And what that means is that the oil lobby, which is never short of friends and influence in the worst of times, may now have a president more sympathetic to its interests than at any time since the Harding administration.

If you were in show business and wanted the Medal of Freedom, the Reagan presidency was a wonderful time. Even Frank Sinatra got one. Now the oil industry has a perfect right to assume its time has come. Hasn't Bush already come out for generous drilling incentives?

The tipoff may be that the American Petroleum Institute has launched a campaign to get us all hysterical about the fact that we're now importing 41.4 percent of our oil compared with only 31 percent in 1985. We should be concerned, of course. But the problem with the setting of federal energy policy has always been one of trying to find a solution that serves the nation's energy and environmental needs without giving the domestic oil industry the key to the treasury, a license to despoil the landscape and a guarantee of riskless profit.

Besides, a policy concerned only with meeting demand and maintaining supplies is a negligent one. As evidence increases that the combustion of fossil fuels is cooking the livability out of the earth's atmosphere, we need to hope for a president whose concept of a wise energy policy goes beyond production incentives and opening up wildlife refuges to drilling rigs.

An oil man as president could even be an advantage in the sense that having been one of them, he should know better than most of us when the oil industry is talking self-seeking rubbish. Would that we had more evidence this is the case.