BACK WHEN Gerald Ford had been named by Richard Nixon as his vice president, I was asked by a magazine editor to write an article about Ford. My instructions were explicit: Do not interview the man. Read the record. I did. I was amazed.

First, what I read. I read the newspaper clippings on Ford going back to his early days as a Michigan congressman. I read the transcript of his attempt to impeach Justice William O. Douglas of the Supreme Court, and last, I read the complete transcript of the hearings held for his confirmation as vice president.

Now, what I found. I found he is not what you would call smart. I found him provincial, and, in the case of Douglas, I found him petty. In the record, in the cold, stark print of the transcripts, he comes across as an unimaginative man, very conservative, dull and inarticulate.

I was stunned. And then I made a mistake. I asked colleagues who knew Ford what they thought of him. They liked him. They liked him a lot, and they said that the record in no way reflected the whole man. I chickened out. I never wrote the piece.

Ford, in a way, is symbolic of this convention. When you get close to him you tend to lose perspective. It is the same with the convention itself. Spend a little time here and things that shouldn't make any sense, start instead to sound wise.

Here, for instance, Howard Baker is considered a liberal. The fact of the matter is that he is not. He is a moderate Republican. Jacob Javits is a liberal. Charles Mathias is a liberal, Howard Baker is a moderate, and not even 5,000 conservative Republicans can change that. Words still mean something -- even at a convention.

Here, though, the world is seen through weird glasses. The Panama Canal looks like the Atlantic Ocean. Prayer in schools is seen as prayer in homes and ERA is seen, correctly, as meaning equal responsibility as well as equal rights. The Mrs. Schlaflys would like one (rights) without the other. I don't blame them a bit.

But the real loss of perspective was reserved for Jerry Ford. The man who fought inflation with a WIN button, who liberated the Mayaguez by bombing the wrong place and killing more Americans then were rescued, and who showed his judgement by pardoning Richard Nixon, was suddenly being sold as the wise man of the Republican Party. It was as if some strange cloud came through the Joe Louis Arena and everyone was stricken with amnesia.

The nature of Jerry Ford, not to mention the nature of Ronald Reagan, is enough for the collapse of their "deal." With Ford you have a man who could not, if his life depended on it, define what he wanted and how, for crying out loud, it could be implemented. This would take a precision of speech and thinking that is beyond him -- beyond him, but not Henry Kissinger.

With Reagan, Ford met his match. Here you had a party nominee who apparently came to the convention with no firm choice for vice president, who didn't know what he wanted in the man, or in the office or, for that matter, in the office of the presidency. It takes a wide-screen version of hutzpah to try to restructure the office of president in a couple of hours of shmoozing in a hotel room. Reagan as we all know, is a small-screen man.

This is something you would be excused for not knowing. The press has a tendency to puff up the people it covers and in a setting such as this one, you tend to lose your perspective altogether. It seems that all things make sense and that all hacks are statemen and that there is a plan to everything. Somewhere, I know, someone who knows bungling and mediocrity firsthand knows better.

It was Jimmy Carter's best night in months.