1988 REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION : Ex-President Responds to Democrats' Attacks : Bush 'at Center of Action,' Ford Declares

Times Political Writer

Former President Gerald R. Ford responded on Tuesday to Democratic attacks on Vice President George Bush with a spirited defense of his friend and former colleague, praising him for his "45 years . . . at the center of the action" in service to his country.

"George was there," Ford said repeatedly, responding to the "Where was George?" taunt raised at last month's Democratic National Convention, and described in detail the vice president's extensive resume and credentials.

"I'll be damned if I will stand by and let anyone . . . discredit the honor, service, accountability and competence of George Bush," Ford told delegates at the Republican National Convention.

That drew a rousing chant from the Superdome crowd: "George was there!"

Relatively Minor Speech

The former President's speech was a relatively minor one at the convention--pushed 20 minutes out of prime time by speakers before him who ran longer than scheduled. They included among others, keynote speaker Thomas H. Kean, governor of New Jersey; former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, and one of this year's defeated presidential candidates, TV religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

Cable News Network reported shortly before Ford stepped up to the podium that he had threatened not to appear at all if he came on after 11 p.m., the end of prime time on the East Coast. But, in the end, Ford was a good sport about it. This was, after all, the man who had to contend with the party's post-Watergate wreckage.

"He just takes it as it comes," Robert Barrett, Ford's longtime aide, said of the timing for Ford's 25-minute speech. "He's been there before. We don't worry about it."

Among the nation's three living former presidents, Ford's convention role was between the extremes. Last month, the Democrats honored Jimmy Carter with a prime-time slot for his address. Richard M. Nixon, however, is nowhere to be seen in New Orleans this week.

Ford arrived Tuesday afternoon from Vail, Colo., with his wife, Betty, for a 26-hour round of events and interviews before returning to Vail.

Ford began his talk by bringing to the podium his wife, who was given a standing ovation amid a sea of red, white and blue pompons.

The ex-President's overall message was in line with a theme articulated Monday night by President Reagan--that Republicans had brought the country peace and economic growth.

"We Republicans are not perfect. We make mistakes, some of them lulus," said Ford, who became President after one of them. "But we stand for something . . . performance, not promises."

He said: "We believe that a government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take from you everything you have.

"I can put it no plainer than this," he added: "This year's Democratic ticket is a tax increase on its way to happen."

Ford, who has campaigned for President Reagan in the past, said he plans "to work my heart out" for Bush.

'Not an Easy Job'

"Now I know a thing or two about the vice presidency," said the former vice president. "It's not an easy job. . . . But like most of life's challenges, you can learn a lot from being vice president."

Barrett said that Ford, who turned 75 July 14, was in "wonderful, wonderful health, terrific vigor" and still plays golf five or six times a month. "He would bury you and me by about 5 or 6 o'clock each day," Barrett said. The Fords spend their summers in Vail and their winters in Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs.

Though Ford seems hardly visible on the national scene these days, Barrett said the former President is very busy. He spends much of his time traveling, attending to business for the many corporate boards on which he serves and also making public appearances. In these, Ford frequently gives his views on national problems.

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