Gerald R. Ford returned to Washington yesterday for a congressional honor and a presidential absolution.

A quarter-century after assuming the presidency at Watergate's culmination, Ford, 86, sat serenely erect in the Capitol Rotunda as House and Senate leaders bestowed accolades and the Congressional Gold Medal on him and his wife, Betty. Then, in the solemn afternoon's emotional high point, President Clinton praised Ford for the decision that probably ended any reasonable chance he had of winning the presidency in his own right: his pardon of Richard M. Nixon.

"It was easy for us to criticize you because we were caught up in the moment," Clinton said. "You didn't get caught up in the moment, and you were right. You were right for the controversial decisions you made to keep the country together."

The audience, which ranged from young congressional pages to Ford peers such as Melvin Laird and Robert and Elizabeth Dole, erupted in applause. So it went on a day when soft autumn light filtered through the towering dome's windows, the Navy Ceremonial Band played "Hail to the Victors" and one could almost imagine Republican and Democratic congressional leaders not only standing together to honor Jerry Ford but also working together to solve such pedestrian matters as a federal budget.

Ford, looking fit and content, a generous thatch of gray hair ringing his familiar bald top, basked in the glow.

"It's customary for former presidents to lie in state in this magnificent Rotunda," he noted. "Listening to all those fulsome tributes, I wondered if maybe you weren't jumping the gun just a bit."

In giving Ford the highest honor that Congress can award a civilian, congressional leaders saluted him for being a decent, honest and patriotic president at a time when the nation needed exactly those bedrock qualities. Above all, it seemed, they honored him for being one of their own, an accidental president who toiled for years as the House Republican leader and was never elected by voters to anything bigger than the congressional seat from Grand Rapids, Mich.

This was no day to haggle over his 2 1/2-year administration's dimmer moments--the lame "Whip Inflation Now" buttons, the debate gaffe over Eastern Europe, the loss to Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976. And when the Nixon pardon was alluded to at all, it was couched as a courageous move by a new president eager to end the "long national nightmare" of Watergate.

"As president, he did more than wake us from a nightmare," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). "He made it possible for us to dream again."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) recalled the honoree's famous 1974 admonition, "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln." Lott added: "He was a Ford, and he was just what America needed at that point in our history."

Each speaker seemed to see a bit of himself as he spoke about the Fords and the 1970s. Clinton nodded to the Fords' children Susan and Steven, but surely he was also thinking of his daughter, Chelsea, when he said: "Their children are here still rooting for them. And that's something, because kids go through hell if their folks are in politics. They get all of the burdens and none of the benefits."

Even more poignant for Clinton--who asked for prayers and forgiveness after his impeachment trial acquittal--were his remarks to Betty Ford, best remembered for publicly battling breast cancer and alcoholism.

"Because I lost my mother to breast cancer, Betty Ford is a heroine to me," Clinton said. "Because my family has been victimized by alcoholism and I know what it's like to see good, fine people stare into the abyss of their own personal despair, I will be forever grateful for the Betty Ford Clinic. . . . She showed them it was not wrong for a good person and a strong person to be imperfect and ask for help."

In his 13-minute speech, Ford left little doubt he was referring to today's Washington when he cited the postwar creation of NATO and the Marshall Plan to make a pitch for cooperation between Congress and the White House. "[That] kind of arm-in-arm working relationship was a critical, important factor in the fact that we won the Cold War," he said.

On the surface, the current president and the one who's barely remembered by today's schoolchildren seemed to have little in common: Clinton, the Southern Democrat so politically gifted that he can talk his way out of almost any jam, vs. Ford, the Midwestern Republican whose political style was so unpolished that comedian Chevy Chase made a career out of lampooning him as a bumbler.

But surfaces can deceive. Ford was a football star at the University of Michigan, and he graduated in the top third of his class at Yale Law School, where Clinton also earned a degree. Each was born with a name that gave way to a stepfather's renaming--Leslie Lynch King Jr. became Gerald R. Ford, and William J. Blythe became William J. Clinton.

More than anything else, perhaps, the two men are linked by the ironies and whims of politics and scandal. Ford never sought the presidency until he had it, and then he lost it. (Betty Ford, in her four-minute speech, turned to House Speaker Dennis Hastert and said, "Mr. Speaker, as you know, your job is the only one Jerry ever wanted.").

Clinton wanted to be president since he was a teenager, and he won the prize twice, only to end up wondering how much his own scandal will shadow his legacy.

Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), one of seven speakers who praised the Fords, called the ex-president "the man Fate picked for our highest office." He's right, of course--American voters never elected Ford to the presidency.

Yesterday Clinton and the congressional leaders agreed that Fate got it right.

CAPTION: Gerald and Betty Ford kiss in the Capitol Rotunda yesterday after the former president and alcoholism treatment crusader both received Congress's highest civilian honor.

CAPTION: The Fords receive the Congressional Gold Medal from President Clinton. With them are House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Sen. Strom Thurmond.