Pacific Palisades, Calif. — Some years ago, in a poignant and fatherly letter to his son, who was about to be married, Ronald Reagan wrote: "Mike, you know better than many what an unhappy home is and what it can do to others. Now you have a chance to make it come out the way it should. There is no greater happiness for a man than approaching a door at the end of a day knowing someone on the other side of that door is waiting for the sound of his footsteps.
"P.S., You'll never get in trouble if you say 'I love you' at least once a day."
The then-governor of California had borrowed the line about the door and the footsteps from Clark Gable. But the love and concern expressed were absolutely sincere. The fact that his son's marriage ended in divorce -- that Mr. Reagan has experienced more than his share of domestic difficulties -- no doubt accounts for his strong public emphasis on the worth of family.
His citing of "family" as the first in "a community of values" listed in his nomination speech was neither campaign rhetoric nor a speechmaker's neat turn of phrase. Ronald Reagan believes deeply in the value of mutual love and a shared life in the traditional sense.
More than he might like to admit, Reagan's family life reflects -- perhaps typifies -- the sometimes unsettling changes that have occurred on the American family scene in recent years.
Between his and his wife Nancy's immediate families there have been six divorces. All four Reagan children dropped out of college, and the younger two admit to have had out-of-wedlock, live-in relationships. There is still the potential for embarrassment in some turns that the Reagan children's life styles , choices of career, and even political views have taken.
(President Carter also has experienced family problems, including divorce in the family, a nephew in prison, and brother Billy's indiscretions.)
But, if anything, these things have made Ronald and Nancy Reagan even more fervent in their attitude toward the family unit, more concerned about what Nancy, in her memoir, calls its "frightening and dangerous . . . downgrading."
When Reagan's marriage to actress Jane Wyman ended in divorce in 1948, she was awarded custody of their two children (Maureen, 6, and Mike, 2).
Today, Michael Reagan says, 'I didn't see him as much as I would have liked." But Mr. Reagan did pick up the children on Sundays and take them to Sunday School (where his own mother was their teacher). Later, after he had remarried, the Reagans would take his children with them to their ranch north of Los Angeles on weekends. All four Reagan children spent much of their younger years in boarding schools.
Of those earlier years, Michael Reagan says that his father "was not a disciplinarian." But in a recent interview, he explained in a kind of stream-of-consciousness fashion, those years when his father tried to guide his son's progress while building a second home and family of his own.
"It was hard, growing up in that kind of atmosphere, to find direction. Because when you're younger and you live in the big house on Beverley Glen and you have the maid or you have the golden spoon in your mouth and you want a new Schwinn 10-speed and you get it . . . and all of a sudden you reach that age where you just can't live at home anymore. And you go out and, of course, you always want the things you grew up with. And you think, 'Gee, I can just click my fingers and it's going to come,' and it doesn't anymore. . . . He would try to explain that you would have to do it on your own. . . . When I was younger, I was trying to find a quick way, and through talking to him I found there really is no quick solution."
Today, Michael Reagan (an amiable young man who has remarried and has a two-year old son) still sees more of his mother (Jane Wyman) than of his father. But of the four Reagan children, he is spending the most time actively campaigning for his father's election. He has given 300 informal talks on his father's behalf (mostly to campaign workers and service clubs), and his wife, Coleen, often joins him on brief campaign tours.
Michael Reagan's life also seems to have found a more traditional track these days. After spending years racing and selling speed boats (he was the world outboard racing champion in 1967), he has formed his own company to market gasohol and is also an executive with an Orange County, Calif., title insurance firm. He has recently joined a church after years of religious inactivity. A 'women's libber' daughter
But the child who has inherited the largest chunk of her father's political penchant is eldest daughter Maureen.
Ms. Reagan (she uses her father's name, but has been married and divorced twice) spent several years as an actress, appearing on a number of television shows (including "Marcus Welby" and "The Incredible Hulk") and in dinner theater. She also hosted her own "talk shows" on radio and television in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Today, she is a director of "Sell Overseas America," an organization to promote the American export business, and is editor of the group's bimonthly magazine, "Showcase U.S.A." In conversation, it is apparent that she is no figurehead executive.
Maureen Reagan is a self-described "women's libber" who has been actively promoting the federal Equal Rights Amendment for many years, notwithstanding her father's opposition to it. On Women's Equality Day last year, she gave the sermon at her church and wore a T-shirt that read "Adam Was A First Draft."
At a recent luncheon gathering of several hundred women employees at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in California, Maureen Reagan gave a rousing half-hour talk on women's rights. Without text or notes, she cited the works of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, and also quoted long passages from letters Abigail Adams sent to her husband John at the Continental Congress.
Later, over shrimp cocktail and apple pie, she talked about her father, of how their views diverge at some points but remain fairly close on others. Asked if she is conservative or liberal, Maureen said: "I'm a militant moderate. The polarization doesn't fit anymore, and in large part it's been broken down by the women's movement."
Like her father, Maureen Reagan personally opposes abortion on the grounds that "life begins at conception." But she also feels that "there is no definitive answer" to the more difficult question of viability.
"I don't think the government should be involved in health care," she said. "But if the government is involved in health care, then it has no right to make a choice as to what health care it will provide. And if abortion is a medical procedure -- as it is known to be in our society -- then government has a responsibility to those women."
She also differs from her father in her view that women ought to be subject to any military draft and not excluded from combat. "I don't think that women can achieve equality in this country without assuming the responsibilities of citizenship, including everything," she argues. "What are we going to do . . . deny ourselves the abilities of the best-trained and -talented people in our society simply because they are women? That's insane!"
She agrees with her father that American's intentions in Vietnam were just and "noble" and also that social problems in this country are basically economic.
"I'm as big an advocate of social justice as anybody else is," she says. "But the basis of social justice is economic freedom. It's the right of people to have jobs and to be trained for jobs."
Based on her father's record of judicial appointments while governor of California, Maureen said she has no worries about the Republican platform regarding abortion and the appointment of federal judges. Neither is she concerned about his abilities in the field of foreign affairs.
"I've known him for quite a long time and have heard him expound at great length on international relations and the need for world peace . . . the fact that we can't do anything, including stabilize the economy, without it," she said.
Asked about the reports that she may seek public office herself (perhaps the US Senate seat of California Republican S. I. Hayakawa), she laughs sharply and says: "Since I plan on living to 102, I expect that sometime in the years to come I will probably do that. But I don't know what and I don't know when."
If the older two Reagan children are more politically active, the younger two are following their father's lead into the performing arts while studiously avoiding politics.
Patti Davis (she uses her mother's maiden name), like her half- sister, has appeared as an actress in several television dramas. She also has composed several popular songs. She has described herself as "antipolitical," although she opposes nuclear power and is a friend of Jane Fonda. Like Maureen, she differs with her father on abortion.
Miss Davis now lives at her parents' home in Pacific Palisades. But there apparently was a time when relations were strained, particularly when her father (as governor) took a hard line regarding antiwar protesters on California campuses.
"Those were inflammatory times," she told an interviewer recently. "We all said things we didn't mean."
Miss Davis's younger brother, Ron, also dropped out of college (Yale) to take up a new career. After studying ballet for several years, he won a full scholarship with the Joffrey School and now is an up-and- coming dancer with the troupe's second string. He lives in Greenwich Village section of New York.
The younger Reagan son recently told People magazine: "I don't care about being famous or anything like that. I just want the personal satisfaction of being respected by other dancers. That's what's good about ballet -- no one can say you're only there because of who your father is. You can either do it, or you can't."
Patti and Ron made brief appearances with the rest of the Reagan family during the Republican National Convention in Detroit last July, but both have avoided the political limelight since then.
Have the Reagan children's careers and choices of life style been a source of frustration for Mr. and Mrs. Reagan?
"I'm sure it has in many ways," says a close friend who has known them since they first went to Sacramento 14 years ago. "I think if the Reagans could have had it another way, they would have But the basic thing is, they love these kids. They're their kids and they accept them."
Might these problems hurt Reagan with the pro-family "born- again" vote he is courting?
"Sure, those issues are of concern," said one man at the recent gathering of 15,000 evangelical Christians in Dallas. "But these are issues that impact all of us."
In their autobiographies, neither Ronald nor Nancy Reagan writes at great length about their children But Mrs. Reagan does hint at this frustration in a way with which many parents would sympathize:
"I think you have to let your children find their own paths and their own lives. . . . I'm sure we've all had some disappointments, large or small, from some of the choices our children have made as they were growing up." 'One tough lady' for a wife
When asked to describe Nancy Reagan, friends and others who have observed her at close range say she is absolutely devoted to, and extremely protective of, her husband.
"I have said many times that my life really began when I married my husband, and I think to a great extent it did," she writes in her autobiography, published earlier this year.
"Nancy is one tough lady," says a former top Reagan aide who may have felt her ire when he jumped ship for the candidacy of Gerald Ford four years ago. "She is unforgiving, very protective of him, totally devoted to him . . . and actress in her own right . . . you have to be an actress to kepp the same constantly adoring gaze as the same speech is given night after night. But don't doubt for a moment her total devotion to him, and her willingness to walk over anybody who gets in his way or says or does anything unkind. She has a long memory. . . ."
Friends of Mrs. Reagan paint the same portrait, although in softer colors. In particular, they say, she has since the days when he was governor made sure he gets enough rest. During the current campaign Reagan has had a problem with his voice. Mrs. Reagan has ordered the staff not to schedule the traditional airplane interviews to avoid undue strain.
"If she knew we were letting him talk to the staff," one aide said on a recent flight, "there'd be trouble."
"Nancy gets very upset when things are reported in the paper that are not what her husband has said," says Ursula Meese, wife of Reagan staff director Edwin Meese. "Then she gets very hard-nosed about it. The governor lets it roll off his back a little bit more, but she's up-front. She usually goes to the source."
"I think she's more socially conscious of doing the right thing," adds Mrs. Meese. "Not that he isn't; but she is perhaps in her own way a little more assertive."
Besides calling offending reporters or news sources to stick up for her husband, Mrs. Reagan has another way of calming down when she is put out. She takes long hot baths and carries on animated one-sided discussions, which she always wins.
"Ronnie says that he could tell when he opened the front door that he'd been in the press, just by the smell of the bath salts," she says.
There is also the question of hos politically influential she is with Reagan how strong a role she played when he was governor of California or might play in the White House.
"She was always part of the team," says William Clark, former cabinet secretary for Reagan and now Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court. "Not in a cabinet sense, but she played a role in scheduling. She recognized better than anyone could just how far we could stretch him"
"Sure, she's influential," says Justin Dart, longtime friend and key conservative backer of Reagan. "I don't know of a good marriage where a wife is not influential. But is she domineering? No. . . . There's no ring in the governor's nose; let's put it that way."
The daughter of a divorced actress, Nancy Reagan spent much of her younger years with an aunt and uncle until her mother remarried. Brought up among famous Broadway and Hollywood personalities (actor Walter Huston was "Uncle Walter"), she lived a comfortable childhood in Chicago and graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts as a drama major. She spent several years in the theater and acted in 11 films; in the last one she starred with Ronald Reagan.
But she says now that she felt all along her real role in life was as wife and mother, that for her there could be no mixing of career and marriage duties.
Of her first meeting with Reagan, she said in a recent interview at the Reagan home in Pacific Palisades: "He was unlike any other actor I'd ever met. He didn't talk about himself, his last picture, or his next picture. He had a wide range of interests and was very knowledgeable about all of them. He was a great conversationalist. All of that attracted me to him."
She makes it clear that "the whole idea of simultaneously pursuing a career and being a wife is a very personal and individual choice."
"I'm sure that there are some people who can do it and do it successfully," she said. "I coult not, so all I can do is speak for myself and the number of marriages I had seen fail. That's why there was no hesitation when I decided to get married to give up my career."
That her opinions can be strongly held comes through clearly when she talks about prayer in public schools and the landmark suit brought by Madeline Murray O'Hair that ended such prayers.
With a bite in her voice, Mrs. Reagan says: "I resent very much her taking that right away from a lot of people who believe as I do . . . the right of children to have a very simple nondenominational prayer as a group, which I think is very important."
Mrs. Reagan believes in the "indoctrination" of moral values, and in much of what she sees coming out of Hollywood today (both films and television), "There has been a lowering of standards of morality that will destroy people and the country."
At the same time, she sees the more hopeful signs of a renewed interest in the traditional sense of faith that parallels a traditional sense of family.
"In our travels and in the questions and answers we do, I sense a feeling of not only wanting to get back to it, but of striving to get back to it," she tells an interviewer. "I see it in young people who are around us asking me questions about marriage, relationships, God, religion, how important religion is to me, do I believe in God.
"I tell them it's very important to me; I do believe in God. I think that a lot of young people -- even though they might not have realized it at the time -- were really searching for something to hold onto and believe in, and it never occurred to them that it was right there for them all the time."
At the end of a half-hour conversation, Mrs. Reagan leads a visitor back to the door of her gracious and beautiful home, past cartons that are being packed with clothes for the move to a rented home and temporary campaign headquarters in Virginia.
She did not particularly enjoy leaving this place for the governor's mansion in Sacramento, and the White House would not be the "Shangri-La" that Nancy and Ronald Reagan keep for themselves in a rustic ranch a few hours north of here.
But, as she has done for 28 years, she would give Ronald Reagan as much love and support as she can in what might be the biggest part he has ever played.