President Ford came back to Washington for a couple of days last week and gave the town a Christmas bonus. At the end of a year not notable for their display, he reminded us of the finer qualities of American public life.

To be sure, he remains so hawkish in military matters he may not even support the next round of arms control, while in economic affairs he continues to confuse policy with being nice to business. But he talks the politics of compromise, and he imparts meaning to the talk by showing patience with imperfection and by laying stress on the means and institutions of government.

Ford met with me and a score of other journalists at a breakfast organized by the American Enterprise Institute - the so-called "Conservative Brookings Institution," which gives more and more evidence of matching its rival in the quality of its work. We were so much more respectful of Ford as ex-President than we had been when he occupied the White House, that he had to break the ice by asking the first question.

Were any of us, he wanted to know, accompanying President Carter on his trip abroad this week? Nobody raised a hand, but somebody asked Ford what he saw in the trip. "I don't see much," he replied casually.

Then, catching himself, he added that it was a necessary face-saver. He was questioned as to why, and said that after a President made a commitment to a visit, there was an obligation to go through with it.

The talk turned to the Panama Canal treaties. Ford went down the line for the aministration. He supported the treaties as something useful to national security. He acknowledged that Carter had been able to squeeze from the Panamanians a better deal on future American military access than his own administration. He was careful about advocating changes in the treaties that might embarrass President Carter.

Somebody asked Ford whether he didn't find it ironic that President Carter had gone back on campaign promises never to yield sovereignty over the canal. Ford replied with the kind of candid admission rarely heard outside the Anglo-Saxon democracies. He said: "I think we both fudged a little on Panama in the campaign."

At one point a question was asked about the Bakke case. Ford said he strongly opposed the use of fixed quotas to guarantee minority groups access to colleges or universities or anything else. He though it was unconstitutional. He said that he had expressed that view repeatedly in talks before college groups, and found that his stand was approved by the students. That applied even to a recent appearance at Dillard, a black university in New Orleans.

In almost the same breath, though, Ford said he was vigorously in favor of affirmative action for disadvantaged groups, so long as it was achieved by other methods. What struck me was the emplhasis on means and institutions. If the crude, body-count system of saving places for minority grups is avoided - which it surely can be - Ford will modify his stance. As the reference to the Constitution indicated, moreover, Ford is obviously going to go along with whatever rule is laid down by the Supreme Court.

The great bulk of the discussion turned on the subject closest to Ford's heart: the Republican Party. Ford made it very clear that he is going to be highly active in party politics in order to keep the party from falling into the hands of its far-right wing. He was rueful about his loss of the North Carolina primarly last year, which he implied kept Ronald Reagan in the race and cost him the presdiential election. He criticized the Republican National Committee for using the Panama Canal issue for fund-raising purposes on the ground that "a broad-based party" should not hook itself on a "single issue."

Almost as much as the Supreme Court, the political parties are critical institutions of American democracy. In the present as in the past, party organizations provide ordinary men with their chief access to political life, and their most sturdy defense against plutocracy. It speaks well for our country that Ford has been, and remains, a "party man."

My own guess is that he will not seek the presidency again but keeps his hand in to save his party from the right-wingers. But if necessry, he probably would go all the way. When a reporter asked him if he didn't prefer skiing to being President, Ford replied: "By 1980 I'll be too old to ski. But not to be President."