BACK WHEN HIS HAIR WAS LONG, HIS jeans tight and his father the 38th President of the United States, Jack Ford loved the spotlight. Whether he was dating Chris Evert, hanging out with George Harrison or posing for Rolling Stone, he was never far from a photographer. "I was 23, single and the first young man living in the White House since FDR's Administration," says Ford. "It was a new sort of thing."

These days, Ford, 44, does his best work behind the scenes, as the executive director of the Host Committee for the GOP convention in San Diego. "There's nothing sexy or glamorous about it," he says. Surprised he's become so buttoned-down? Don't be. "I've always been pretty conservative in my politics and philosophy," insists Ford, a successful San Diego businessman. (The company he cofounded in 1985, California Infotech, supplies electronic-information kiosks to malls.) On leave from his job, Ford is in charge of raising funds, accommodating 4,000 delegates and coping with 12,500 journalists.

Pitching in on a campaign is nothing new for Ford, who stumped for his father in 1976. Following Gerald Ford's defeat, Jack moved to San Diego and worked as publisher of a small weekly newspaper. "After the White House, I kept a low profile," he says. "There's a 10-year period when hardly anything was written about me." One legal scrape made news: In 1983 his license was temporarily suspended when he was convicted of reckless driving.

Ford's wild side was obscured for good, though, after he met Juliann Felando in 1984. "Jack's got this way with people that's very open and honest," says Felando, 34, who married him in 1989. That quality should serve him well as he chases his dream of running for office someday. "I like the idea of having an impact on history," he says.

Lofty talk from the guy who once nuzzled Bianca Jagger on a photo shoot in Lincoln's bedroom. "Sure, it was a fun time," says Ford. "But it would be a shame if that was the highlight of my life. I sure didn't ever want that to be my crowning achievement."