There's a new first lady on the way, and she is different.

"I tell you," said Barbara Bush, "my mail tells me that a lot of fat, white-haired, wrinkled ladies are tickled pink."Americans of many shapes and sizes may be tickled when they encounter the new, down-to-earth first lady who laughs at her imperfections and talks as if she is surrounded by old friends.

In addition to her sense of humor, Barbara Bush has a serious side that is fiercely devoted to her husband, her family and the issue of literacy. Having stood by George Bush while he was in Congress, the CIA and the vice presidency, Barbara Bush is the ultimate Washington insider and will be the first president's wife in modern memory to glide into the title of first lady supremely self-assured. Her candor and energy already have prompted comparisons to Eleanor Roosevelt.

"I wish you wouldn't say Eleanor Roosevelt," Mrs. Bush, 63, noted in an interview. "I grew up in a household that really detested her."

Mrs. Bush says what she thinks - a practice that lands her in occasional trouble. As first lady she is going to try not to overstep the bounds of propriety or be accused of wielding too much influence, as both Nancy Reagan and Rosalynn Carter were.

"I know people say that I'm outspoken, but I'm never going to speak out on issues," she told reporters. "Don't sit around under bushes waiting for it because I'm not going to do it."

Having said that, Mrs. Bush went on to discuss literacy, homelessness, AIDS, working mothers, first ladies and her relationship with her husband.

Mrs. Bush is candid about telling her husband what's on her mind. "That's why we do so well. I don't have to talk to his staff. I talk to him."

Nancy Reagan was in constant touch with a high-ranking member of President Reagan's staff and was especially watchful of his schedule, concerned that his staff was working him too hard. Will Barbara Bush have similar veto power over George Bush's schedule?

"Wait a minute!" Mrs. Bush exclaimed. "If I think George is being overworked I am certainly going to complain. That's a normal thing to do. I'll complain to him, his doctor, his scheduler, anyone who will listen."

Mrs. Bush will be a visible, vocal first lady. In the first 100 days of the new administration, Mrs. Bush said, she will announce the formation of a foundation that will give grants to programs that deal with illiteracy and the family.

"I'm vitally interested in making America literate," she said. "I've really evolved my way around to literacy in the family, particularly young mothers with children. I would work through the private sector, with maybe public-private partnerships. But I don't lobby George Bush and I don't lobby the federal government."

"I'm going to work for homelessness and I'm very concerned about AIDS. AIDS is a major interest of mine," she volunteered. "I would say both of those would be better if more Americans could read and write and comprehend."

Mrs. Bush said she is for equal rights, but not the equal rights amendment. "I'm not against it or for it," she said. "I'm not talking about it."

Concern for family is a theme sounded often by both George and Barbara Bush. They have five children and 10 grandchildren. Another child, Robin, died at age three of leukemia, a tragedy that severely tested Mrs. Bush.

On George Bush's first night as president, 28 family members will sleep at the White House. After Eunice Shriver told Mrs. Bush that John Kennedy's children were photographed on the Lincoln bed their first night there, Mrs. Bush decided to bring her camera and have a family gathering. George Bush's ailing mother will stay in the Queen's bed, and all the Bush women will parade in to show her their inaugural ball gowns.

Asked about her role as first lady, Mrs. Bush replies, "I see it exactly as my role has been before, truthfully: running the house, listening to my children's problems, passing them on to George if they're important.

"I think we'll entertain an enormous amount because that's what George does now. If you want to know what my goal is going to be, it's to see that George Bush gets out of the White House."

The next first lady acknowledged that in some other matters she and Nancy Reagan "do things differently." Among those things is how they dress. Mrs. Reagan was a heroine of the high fashion industry but drew criticism for borrowing more than $1 million worth of clothes from designers and not reporting them in financial disclosure statements or income tax filings.

Mrs. Bush, famous for her triple string of fake pearls, will not be immersed in high fashion, nor will she accept dresses from designers.

"I did accept a dress once," said Mrs. Bush, "and I declared it and George paid taxes on it, or whatever you do. I bought my clothes."

Packing up all their belongings and marking them for the White House, Camp David, storage, Kennebunkport or museums has been "agony" the past few weeks, she said.

"All the pictures we borrowed from museums go back. If we don't end up with a museum piece at the White House and our junk in the museum I'll be surprised," she said. Despite the confusion, "This is enormously exciting, this move, for us. It's wrong to do things in life and not enjoy them."