The nation's rich and powerful have been flocking to this resort city of 28,100 for so long that when report leaked out concerning President and Mrs. Ford's impending move here, they hardly raised any eyebrows.

Every President since Herbert Hoover has come to relax at Palm Springs, a sunny desert retreat two hours' drive from Los Angeles. Many of the top names in the entertainment field from Mary Pickford to Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope have also settled here. It is a place where celebrity is commonplace.

Myriad golf courses, 350 days of sunshine and an active cafe society are only part of the reason why the nation's elite gathers in this city along the eastern ridge of the rugged San Jacinto mountains. A more important factor, explains local gossip columnist Gloria Greer, is that Palm Springs knows how to take the famous in stride.

"People's privacy is respected here," Greer said, basking in the sunshine beside the pool at Palm Springs' fashionable racquet club. "There's a relaxation about this town. It's not like Palm Beach or those other places. It's not like living in a fishbowl. It's like living in a small town with very worldly people."

Privacy and worldiness certainly define Thunderbird Heights, a section outside town where the Fords are reportedly looking to rent a home after Jimmy Carter's Inauguration this week. Guards protect the perimeter of the Heights, where homes range from the manorial to the simply luxurious.

Realtors in the area are properly close-mouthed about the Ford home search but one knowledgeable broker said the President's family is considering seveal homes along the Heights' upper ridge. Guessing which home will be the final choice has become sort of a parlor game here, but informed speculation now centers on the ranch house on Thunderbird Drive owned by insurance executive Fred Wilson.

Two years ago the Fords stayed at the Wilson home, a spacious desert-style house with a semi-circular driveway in front and a tennis court in the back. The house is located in an area where the cheapest homes are $90,000 and some have been known on rare occasions to garner close to $1 million.

Last fall, after the election, the Fords went to a party at the Wilsons' house attended by 250 people, most of whom are members of the nearby Thunderbird Country Club. Gene Autry, Alice Fay, Bob Hope and California's Republican Attorney General Evelle Younger were among the guests.

If the Fords move into Thunderbird Heights they will be moving into one of Palm Springs' most fashionable residential areas. Around 80 to 100 homes, each on at least an acre of land, make up a sort of elite mini-community of businessmen, doctors and retired wealthy people. It is located at the edge of a game reserve where desert jackrabbits munch on the luxuious shrubs which surround most of the homes. In the parched summer months bighorn sheep come down from the mountain to drink from the many pools in the Heights.

The possible Ford move into Thunderbird Heights has reawakened local interest in the alleged discriminatory policies of the Thunderbird Country Club, which is located downhill from the area. In the earlier days of Palm Springs, locals recall, Jews, including comedian Jack Benny, were excluded from membership in Thunderbird.

Today the existence of such overt discrimination at Thunderbird is discounted. "We have no evidence of overt discrimination anywhere," a spokesman for the Palm Springs Jewish Community Center said. But the spokesman quickly added," that does not mean that Jewish people are welcome everywhere."

Whatever the alleged policies of the Thunderbird Country Club, they have certainly not prevented Jews from moving into the Heights. "I have known of no discrimination here," said Jeannie Goodfriend, a Jewish resident of the area and a local realtor. "And if anybody's in a position to know that, I certainly am."

While the discriminatory patterns of the past may well be shattered, Palm Springs' society remains sharply drawn along definable lines. Here the key to a person's social circle is his or her country club, and the Fords, who have partied and played golf at Thunderbird, will likely end up mixing with the club's predominantly white, Protestant families.

Among Thunderbird's members are some of the biggest names in business and entertainment, including millionaire executive Leonard Firestone and entertainers Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. But they are by no means the only exclusive elite crowd in town.

There are two other major high society clubs in Palm Springs. One, the Tamarisk has a number of Jewish members as well as many members from the Hollywood crowd, including Red Skelton and Frank Sinatra. The other important club, the El Dorado, is like Thunderbird, basically a white Protestant businessman's stronghold. Justin Dart, close adviser to former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, is a member of El Dorado.

While country club life dominates society in Palm Springs, there is much more here that appeals to the taste of the rich and powerful. Perhaps most obvious are the strict zoning codes which have kept Palm Springs at low density and free from the neon haze which afflicts places like Miami Beach and Las Vegas.

"The Kentucky Colonel has no bucket here," says a smiling Thomas Hanlon, executive director of the Palm Springs Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "He has no price signs and he's not even painted red, but desert brown. The golden arches can't even make it into town."

Meticulous control over the Palm Springs environment is financed by the town's rich tax base. Some of the nation's richest people live and pay taxes here while only 8 per cent of the population lives near the poverty line.

Creation of Palm Springs as a resort of the rich began back in the 1880s, with the coming of San Francisco lawyer John Guthrie McCallum. Due to his influence the city remained an exclusive white Protestant reserve until the 1920s, when the Hollywood crowd began migrating here during the winter months.

Today Palm Springs is bulging with tourists who during the cold months double the city's population. Palm Canyon Boulevard, the city's palm-lined main street, is packed with expensive shops like Saks Fifth Avenue and I. Magnin, which make it like a Fifth Avenue in the desert.

Society people here are confident that the Fords will be able to fit right into their clean, well-kept city. "This is really a good place for them to live," said Gloria Greer excitedly. "He'll be able to play plenty of golf and I'm sure Betty will get involved in lots of things."

Perhaps the only Ford family members who might not like Palm Springs, Greer admitted, are the younger Fords. After the social whirl of Washington and Colorado ski resorts, Palm Springs may seem a bit deadly to Jack and Susan, at least. "There really isn't much for kids to do here," Greer said. "This is basically an older person's type of resort."

Most of the people on the streets of Palm Springs this winter are in their 40s and older. Nearly 75 per cent of all visitors here are married and half make over $20,000 a year, according to the convention bureau statistics. It's not at all surprising then that even the town's few discotheques are rather listless and at least several decibels quieter than their counterparts in Los Angeles.

Young people in Palm Springs like to complain about the town. One attractive young professional woman called the resort "a most incredibly boring old person's town." Another young person, a hotel worker in his 20s, shook his head after letting a suntanned middle-aged couple out of their white Cadillac. "I just don't get it," he said. "Palm Springs - so what? I just don't see what the big deal is."