SAN DIEGO (AP) _ Two former Republican presidents brought the Republican National Convention to life Monday, stressing the need for leadership and integrity in the White House by taking swipes at its current occupant.

``As we gather here this week, our Republican hearts and minds are in hospitable San Diego _ and our FBI files are in the White House,'' Gerald Ford quipped to the roars of an appreciative crowd of Republican delegates.

George Bush, making his first political appearance since his defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992, also raised the character issue that has deviled Clinton and his staff.

``It breaks my heart when the White House is demeaned, the presidency diminished,'' Bush said. ``Bob Dole, as president, will treat the White House with respect, his staff will be beyond even the appearance of impropriety.''

Looming over the brief talks by Ford and Bush was the shadow of another Republican president: Ronald Reagan, whose appearance before the convention was made impossible by the ravages of Alzheimer's disease.

Reagan was instead to be represented by a video and emotional appearance by his wife, Nancy.

While never mention Clinton by name, Bush and Ford took turns jabbing at the character issue, raising Clinton's lack of military service and wavering on issues.

``Leadership around the world means keeping one's word,'' said Bush. ``It means policy by conviction. It means never blaming others, or ducking and dodging, or putting our troops under U.N. command.''

Ford reminded the crowd that years ago he told another convention, ``I was a Ford, not a Lincoln.''

``Today what we have in the White House is neither a Ford nor a Lincoln,'' Ford said. ``What we have is a convertible Dodge. Isn't it time for a trade-in?''

Prior to giving his speech, Bush acknowledged his reluctance to return to the public spotlight.

``It's not that I'm a spoil sport or not that I don't want to see friends, but I'm yesterday _ I'm happily yesterday,'' Bush said in an interview on ``The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.''

``I mean I had a shot at it. I did my best, tried my hardest. ... I don't need the day-to-day politics anymore,'' he said.

Bush said his connection to politics is now maintained by his sons. George W. Bush is governor of Texas; Jeb Bush lost a close election in the 1994 Florida gubernatorial race.

``That's what really interests me,'' he said.

The speeches by Ford and Bush and the evocation of the Reagan mystique were seen as reinforcing the 1996 Republican message: restoration of the American Dream through Republican leadership and individual responsibility.

``In particular, the former presidents will be talking about leadership in the Republican Party and individual leadership as one of the assets of the American people,'' said Mary Crawford, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

As presidents who lost re-election bids, Bush and Ford have seen the mantle of leadership slip from their shoulders.

Ford has eased into the role of ex-president. He divides his time among homes in Michigan, Colorado and California, serves on corporate boards, makes speeches and participates in celebrity golf tournaments.

At the 1992 Republican convention in Houston, he gave a politely received if little-remembered speech.

For Bush, Monday's appearance was a reintroduction to the spotlight. Defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992, Bush has remained a very private citizen, turning down most requests for interviews.

He has traveled to 39 countries, including Kuwait and other Middle East countries where he is hailed as a hero for his leadership in the Gulf War. In addition, he has chipped away at his memoirs and overseen the construction of his presidential library at Texas A&M University.

Bush's appearance before the convention offered another form of nostalgia: Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, was picked to introduce him.

``There's a lot of ... good things that happen to you in politics, and one of them is kind of these personal scrapbook moments,'' Gov. Bush said.