Everything is behind gates and walls. The sun is bone white, and so are the golf carts. There's a Frank Sinatra Drive. There's a Bob Hope Drive. About a year ago they make a Gerald R. Ford Drive.

If you're staying in old Palm Springs, at a '30s oasis called the Ingleside Inn (Lily Pons had a villa there for a dozen years), they fetch you from the airport in a Rolls. Ingleside has a fleet of Rollses.

Out on Palm Canyon Drive, on the way to a former president's house, you go past the Gene Autry Hotel, and, believe it or not, Gene himself is propped at the pool deck. He wears a bola tie and brown boots and he wobbles when he walks. Heck, yeah, he'll give you an autograph. "From your old pal, Gene Autry," he scribbles in a hand gone tremulous.

Somewhere in their hearts they are just small-town boys come home. Gerald Rudolph Ford, a small-town boy from Michigan who made impossibly good, gimps across his study to pick up a telephone. "HELLO," he says in that flat, guileless, Middlewesterner's voice that might just as easily belong to a shellac salesman at the Grand Rapids Wood Finishing Co.

But this is no irate contractor calling; this is Richard Nixon on the phone from back East where it is cold as igloos and nearly 1 p.m. Out here it is 9:45 a.m. Dogs are still stretching awake. They haven't raked the pools yet.

The 38th president covers the mouthpiece. "Uh, would you mind stepping out for a moment? I'm going to talk to President Nixon. I put a call into him earlier this morning. His birthday was yesterday, you know. He turned 70. I'll be 70 myself on July 14. I'll be glad to give you a report of our talk presently."

In the next room, a suddenly alert receptionist can be heard to say: "Mr. President, I have the president on the line now, and I'll put him through." She pushes another button and says: "Mr. President, I have the president on the line, and I'm going to put you right through."

Fifteen minutes later the chief executive who never let ambition devour him (or even get him into a half nelson), who tried to keep his dreams pure as silver (but didn't quite, of course, because he was human), is seated again in a wing chair in his memento-strewn office. Henry Kissinger is staring down benevolently from a frame on the wall. The Kodachrome day is washing in. The most contented Republican in America, retired but not idle, has his pipe and coffee beside him. He rubs the knee of his window-plaid golf slack and says this:

"Oh, Dick was in great spirits. We talked a little about reaching 70--he told me he'd commiserate when I got there. I don't get to see him much anymore. I saw him when we went to Egypt for Mr. Sadat's funeral. I guess you could say we have a 'proper' relationship now. I think Dick realizes--I think we both realize--that anything more would do neither of us any good. But he is a friend of mine, and I don't abandon my friends."

There is the slightest halt in his voice; as a child Gerald Ford had bouts with stuttering. "You know, that business of the pardoning always comes up when I go out to speak on campuses. Usually you get the question from someone who is still bitter about it. You can sense it immediately by the way the questioner begins. And invariably a funny thing happens: The audience ends up applauding me. You see, I think what happened is that the American people understood it after the fact. But I don't worry about it--and it's always gratifying to get that applause."

Who in his wildest Grand Rapids hair could have guessed it was going to end up this good? The journey of Jerry Ford, from the cold dunes of Lake Michigan to the cauterizing sun of Palm Springs (with a presidency in between), seems more fantastical, somehow, than the journeys of some other small-town American boys who also made good this century: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter.

(Richard Nixon and John Kennedy are city boys in our imagination. They are of places called Yorba Linda and Brookline, which really means L.A. and Boston. When Kennedy succeeded Eisenhower in 1961, Norman Mailer wrote that it was the triumph of the city over the small town.)

This is the kid who used to run concessions at Alex Demar's amusement park, who worked lunches at Bill Skougis' restaurant across from South High, whose big-boned, loving mama had but three simple rules: Tell the truth, work hard, come to dinner on time.

And now, with a rich man's pleasures and a rich man's havens, with all the fame of his former office but none of its griefs, Jerry Ford plays golf with Jack Nicklaus; gives speeches for fabulous sums; teaches and travels nearly at his will ("I've been to 98 colleges and universities, taught over 500 classes,"); has a son who acts in a TV soap opera ("Oh, yes, I'm going to tune him in right over there after while"); hosts symposiums with world leaders and chief executive officers; sits on eight corporate boards (including 20th Century-Fox, which reportedly pays him $50,000 a year for the privilege); and is otherwise estimated to earn a king's ransom "retirement" salary of $1 million a year.

And when it gets too hot, he goes to Vail.

"We go June 1 to Colorado," he is saying in those reassuring, middle-border cadences. "It gets to 115 here in the summer, and if you play golf at all, you play at night or at six or seven in the morning. We grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan, and so we love water. After we lost the election in 1976, we thought seriously about going back to Michigan. But Betty had that bad arthritis, you know. So we looked at Florida, we looked at Arizona, we looked out here. The dampness in Florida turned us off. Then we found we had more good friends in this area than elsewhere. It was dry and warm. It was good for her health, and it was good for my golf game."

And it hasn't disappointed?

"It's just as perfect as we hoped it would be."

He is a 16-handicapper. (Last year he had it down to a 12.) He wears penny loafers and soft sweaters that have golf sticks embroidered on them. At 69 his belly is reasonably unflabby. When he puts on his pale specs, prefatory to hitting a golf ball or reading small type, he looks instantly older.

It is a little startling to realize that Jerry Ford and Richard Nixon are just six months apart in age.

Were it not for his gimpy left knee, you would be tempted to call him a specimen. Sooner or later, he'll have to have a total replacement for that knee, he says, resigned. "No cartilage." His chronic knees date from his football youth.

On hitting golf balls, he says this: "Sometimes it's good, when I hit it in the fairway. Sometimes it's tragic, when it goes out of bounds."

He has big ears and small, blue eyes and hair not terribly combed. Funny thing: He uses the presidential "we" a lot. Aside from the expensive-looking gold watch on his left wrist, this preference for "we" seems the only slight personal excess in a man who gets doors for you, makes sure you have coffee, waits till you have your pencil out. If you came with a coat, he'd probably help you put it on when you went out.

But what you sense most in the first few minutes in the presence of Gerald Ford, history's "instant president," is something other than physical appearance or lush surroundings: Here is someone not brooding in his soul over imagined slings and outrageous fates and long-ago bruises. Or even recent bruises, for that matter. In the spring of 1981, a recently deposed Jimmy Carter was reported in Newsweek to have suggested Jerry Ford was using the ex-presidency to get rich. Ford was hot about that for awhile (though he didn't exactly deny it), although the two seem fast friends now. Today he will have only warm words and a seeming perspective about the man who beat him in a close election.

"Sure, losing that election in 1976 truly hurt Betty and me. We felt we were doing as good a job as possible under very difficult circumstances. But we weren't going to sit and cry about it. I think President Carter won that election because of an exploitation of a mood in the country. Oh, I don't mean 'exploitation' in the bad sense. What I mean was that the country had been healed and people were restless and looking for something totally new. And Jimmy Carter came along. But that's okay. We lost in a good fight."

Alan Ladd has a Palm Springs hardware store in his name--and it's a pretty rare hardware. At almost every turn in old Palm Springs, in fact, you come on another fragrant ghost from movieland. On El Alameda Street, in a tropical garden, there is a squat grouping of stucco bungalows called Harlow Haven. The rooms at Harlow Haven don't have numbers; they have movie titles: "Saratoga," "Platinum Blond." There is something wonderfully vanished and vanishing about everything in this parched Byzantium, never mind its swelling population.

Rancho Mirage is part of the new Palm Springs. To get to Gerald Ford's place, you take a left on Country Club and then a right on Sand Dune Road. Sand Dune is more a lane than a road, and at the end of it are a guard house and an electronic gate. The Secret Service--one of them is in Earth Shoes and putter pants--buzzes you through. The gate retracts. "Park over there," a mustached man with a radio in his ear says politely. People wander about--caretakers, clerical staff, somebody with dry cleaning over his shoulder. The immediate air is of relaxed scrutiny, low-key vigilance. None would dare speak loudly.

The low-slung villa where Ford has his office and permanent staff of seven used to belong to Ginger Rogers. Ford bought into this golfscape (you could eat out of the sandtraps) in 1977 from his friend and now neighbor, Leonard Firestone. Across Country Club Road, in another closed-off pleasure dome called The Springs, is Spiro Agnew's place. At least that's what people say.

Lee Simmons, who is Ford's personal traveling aide, says he gets glimpses of Agnew or his wife at the post office now and then. Simmons, who has a Jackie Gleason Inverrary golf hat on this morning, used to be chief steward on Air Force One. He worked in the White House for 22 years, but gave it up to come to the sun of California to work for Jerry Ford. "It's only snowed once since we've been here," Simmons says. And heck, that wasn't even here. That was over in Palm Springs.

"This week is easy," says Simmons. "Just little things around here. Wednesday he's going to L.A. for a golf tournament. Next week we start it up again--Bermuda, Texas. The Bermuda trip is for one of his boards. I forget what the Texas thing is."

The president's pace, says Simmons, could weary a thoroughbred. "Only time I've seen him sick in six years was when we were coming back from Hawaii. He'd been in Australia, just for a couple nights. We had been running here and running there. We were going to drop off Mrs. Ford in L.A. and go on to New York for something. He was coughing bad, and she convinced him to get off and see a doctor. Turned out he had bronchial pneumonia."

Actually, Ford has coughed deeply several times today. Before the morning is up, he will say: "Yes, I really am hoping to slow down in this coming year. For one thing, I'd like to cut my corporate boards down from eight to five." But it sounds, somehow, as if this is an engine someone else is driving.

Ford's home is right over there, across a fairway. In the green middle distance is a pole with a limp flag hanging on it. The pole is standing in a little napkin of clipped turf. It's about an eight iron shot from here, and Jerry Ford, the bogey man, could probably play the hole from his living room.

He speaks warmly of his old golfing pal, Tip O'Neill. "He's been out here to play. We don't agree on much politically, but we do like to play together. No, we really don't talk politics on the course. We keep our mind on the game." He says nice things about Howard Baker and some others from the old days and then adds: "I don't know those younger fellows in Washington." It sounds the tiniest bit wistful. His pipe is in its tray. Little curls of smoke are making mares' tails toward the ceiling.

What exactly is an ex-president for, anyway? Membership in the world's most exclusive club is up at the moment--to three. In Britain former heads of state usually get shunted off to some dignified official assignment or other, but Americans don't quite seem to know what to do with their former chief executives. The last time in recent memory an ex-president held an official government job was when Harry Truman brought back Herbert Hoover to chair a commission on government reorganization.

In some ways being an ex-president seems a splendid curse, not unlike the curse of the gypsies: May your dreams come true. Of this century's ex-presidents, going back to Truman, Gerald Ford may be managing the role most skillfully, having it serve his purposes most adroitly.

John Kennedy never had a chance to be an ex-president. Ike retired to Gettysburg, got a driver's license and proceeded to take Mamie on rides around the farm. Yes, Truman left the White House and got home to Independence, where he longed to be, but he would later grouse: "I can't seem to get from under that awful glare that shines on the White House. Once a man has been president he becomes an object of curiosity, like those other notorious Missouri characters, Mark Twain and Jesse James."

There probably was never much chance that Jerry Ford was going to go back to the furniture capital of the Midwest. When you ask about that, he says, "Oh, we have a great allegiance to Grand Rapids and to Michigan, but at our age and for our activities, it's better for us to be out here." Suddenly he lights. "We're going to the Holland tulip festival in May."

It is probably too soon to know what Jimmy Carter thinks of being an ex-president, but one has the sense, increasingly, that Plains cannot hold him. And of Lyndon Johnson we know this: He left the White House in 1969 and went home to Texas and then seemed to comb endlessly the haunts of his hill-country boyhood, as if thereby he might find the clue to why he could not solve a riddle called Vietnam.

Richard Nixon has let few people get close in his ex-presidency, and understandably. But one has an abiding image of him in those first exiled days at San Clemente. Ford himself wrote a sorrowful description of the most pathetic and dejected of men in his 1979 autobiography, "A Time to Heal." The new president had sent an aide to California to talk to Nixon about the pardon Ford was considering granting.

"The office was very small and looked as though someone had just moved in. There were no pictures on the walls. There was just a desk, flanked by the U.S. and presidential flags. Nixon sat behind that desk and . . . he looked terrible. He appeared to have aged and shrunken in the month since his resignation. His jowls were loose and flabby, and his shirt seemed to be too big for his neck. Nixon didn't smoke, but his fingernails had a yellowish tint."

In the matter of being an ex-president, Ford says: "I'm not looking for a job, I don't want to be appointed to anything, I'm not running for anything." It was not always thus, of course. Ford spent considerable time between 1976 and 1980 denying interest in a presidential candidacy, only to try to hurl his hat back into the ring in the spring of 1980, and then again at the convention in July. Some felt the decent and easy-going Jerry Ford had dissembled.

"I say I don't want a job, but I do want input," he says. "I strongly feel that former presidents should be called on, and called on regularly. I don't think it should be structured. I don't think there should be a 'council.' Now in the case of President Carter, he called on me in four specific areas. And President Reagan has always been receptive. When I go to Washington I stop in to see him. I don't call him any time I think of something. But I give him my opinion on things. The defense program, for instance. I'm all for building it up, as he is, I just feel we should stretch it out. You get the same hardware, only you stretch it out over five or six years."

The problem in Washington he's concerned about right now, Ford says, is the relationship between the president and Congress in handling foreign policy. (He thinks Congress has moved in too far.) And as for the country's economic condition, he is glad to remember that "when we left Washington the prime rate was down to 6 and a quarter. I'm real proud of that."

The current serenity of Jerry Ford must lie in a history of being able to bury bitterness and not dwell very long on the things that one can never change. That, and simply continuing to go forth, which is what Michigan boys at the shank of the century were taught to do. "Once I determine to move, I seldom, if ever, fret," he wrote in his autobiography.

Not that his life is straight out of Booth Tarkington or James Whitcomb Riley. There was love in Jerry Ford's childhood, but there were also scars. Like that day in 1930, when he was 17 and working the lunch crowd at Skougis' joint and something happened that hit him like a safe dropped from a roof: Leslie King, his real father, walked in. Ford's mother and King had split up before Ford had any conscious memory of it.

His father took him outside to a new Lincoln. There was a woman sitting inside. The three went to get something to eat. When Leslie King drove off later that day, he handed his son $25 and told him to go buy something. That night, the son broke down and sobbed.

"Never in my life," the son says now, "have I brooded about some bad break. Nope, if things went wrong, I always looked down the road to the future. I don't know where I got this trait, exactly. From my mother, I suppose, though my stepfather had a tremendous impression on me, too."

Ford will talk openly, even eagerly, about his wife's former addictions to alchohol and pills and her current work at the Betty Ford Center, which is an alcohol-and-drug treatment unit connected with the Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Springs. The building was dedicated last fall and George Bush participated.

"Ten million people in this country are alcoholics. Betty is not a recovered alcoholic. She's a recovering alcoholic--that's the way you must view it. Her coming to terms with her problems was a great victory for all of us. We had an 'intervention.' They call it tough love. But it works. They say 50 percent of all alcoholics become recovering alcoholics, 25 percent slip and then come back, and another 25 percent don't make it. Betty spends almost half of her time at the center now."

Two days later. Los Angeles. Jerry Ford is playing in the celebrity pro-am at the Glen Campbell L.A. Open. Peter Falk and Robert Stack and Andy Williams are here, too, but Ford is drawing the biggest crowds. He is not destined to bean anybody today.

One of his Secret Service men is in a puce sweater. The protection boys, scanning the crowds, form a little motorcade of four motorized golf carts. All day long they will part the people like Moses parting the waves.

Ford is due to tee off at 11 a.m., but now, at 10:35, he is in a practice stall, lining wood shots. Fans are trying to squeeze in on all sides behind the ropes to watch him. In the very front of the crowd, leaning his 91-year-old chin on the wooden side of the stall, is Joe Norwood, charter and life member of the Professional Golfers Association. Norwood, aged but dignified, goes all the way back to the first L.A. Open, in '26, when Lighthorse Harry Cooper won with a 279.

To the Secret Service, and who really can blame them, this might just be some old coot who has wormed his way to the fore. What is this guy doing here? "Don't spare the swing! Belt it," says Norwood, who has an old fedora, huge ears and a blue windbreaker. He is giving unsolicited golf tips to the former president of the United States.

"Haven't played in awhile, eh?"

"Haven't played in four or five weeks," Jerry Ford admits, wiping his brow, lining up another ball on the little mat of fake grass. He has just shanked one clean out of the practice area.

"You're swinging up instead of down. You're afraid of hurting the ball! No, no, no. You're swinging across with your body. Keep your body in there! Attaboy, now you've got it. The hardest thing to teach in golf is to swing down. Everybody swings up. You're getting it now. You'll go out there and get yourself an 82 today."

A Secret Service man comes in. He gets Joe Norwood gently by the arm. "Uh, sir, you'll have to . . ." Secret Service man says.

"B-b-but," says Norwood, trying to wrest loose his arm.

And it is here that a former president, a man who once granted a hugely controversial pardon to a perceived enemy of the people, decides to grant another one--sort of. Gerald R. Ford steps over.

"It's all right. Can he please, if it's okay, stay? I know Joe."

"Oh, yes, sir. By all means, sir," says the Secret Service man, yanking his hand off old Joe Norwood as if he were a hot poker.

Jerry Ford's next hit is long and true, right down the middle. Here is a bogey man who keeps driving for show and putting for dough. Not a lot of style, but this guy has heart. As it turns out, the bogey man will have a pretty good day today. You might say he has the course knocked.