New York — First Lady Nancy Reagan reminds few of Eleanor Roosevelt. In fact, she is usually portrayed in the media as a chic Lady Bountiful. She has been criticized for her ever-present hairdressers, her designer clothing, her expenditures for White House redecoration, and for purchasing expensive new dinnerware.
But now there is another image of Nancy Reagan emerging - albeit a heavily publicized one. In recent weeks she has embarked on tours of youth centers for the drug-addicted as well as institutions where senior citizens serve as foster grandparents to disabled and emotionally disturbed youngsters. Meantime, she has publicly notified the dress designers who have been ''lending'' her clothes that she will no longer accept even the loan. This interview was granted with the understanding that we would talk only about her social work, much of which she has been doing since her husband was governor of California in the 1960s.
After entering as instructed through the East Gate, where my driver's license and the contents of my attache case were checked, I walked through the East Portico into a foyer where I was met by Mrs. Reagan's press secretary, Sheila Tate, who escorted me to the library on the ground floor. She left to fetch Mrs. Reagan.
In the far corner of the library, near one of the huge White House windows, was a book stand on which rested a thick portfolio of American Indian drawings. On the walls were other drawings of Indians, all by Charles Bird King, circa 1821. Over the fireplace, however, was a large reproduction of the familiar Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.
Two Federal period straight-backed chairs, upholstered in red flame-stitch fabric to match the drapes, were placed facing each other on the Oriental rug in front of the fire, which a blue-jeaned employee had came in to light. I sat down in one chair only to stand up again quickly as the First Lady arrived. We greeted each other and exchanged pleasantries.
I decided to test the waters early.
''Recently, you were quoted as remarking with amusement at an Alfred E. Smith charity dinner that you are also interested in the Girl Scouts, drug-abuse programs, and 'The Nancy Reagan Home for Wayward China.' Does that indicate a plan to strike back at your critics with humor?''
She interrupted, not breaking her smile, but shaking her head. There was a faraway yet steely look in her eyes.
''I'm just going to talk to you about foster grandparents and drug abuse,'' she said. Back to foster grandparents and drug addiction.
How did Mrs. Reagan get involved in the Foster Grandparents program?
''As the daughter of a doctor, I've always been a hospital visitor. In 1967, when my husband was governor of California, I visited the one place which was involved in such a program and was very much attracted to the plan. It is designed for low-income people over 60 who need the hot lunch and the contact with youngsters.
''It's just wonderful when you can take care of two groups of people at opposite ends of the spectrum and bring them together so each can give to the other what the other needs.''
The program brings approximately 18,000 older citizens to institutions for disabled and abused children, where each adult serves as a foster grandparent to about three youngsters for a total of around 54,000 children. The grandparents are rewarded with a hot lunch and a $2 an hour stipend.
Mrs. Reagan reminisced about her introduction to the program at an institution in California.
''On my first visit, I met George, a very stocky Oriental boy who took my hand and never let go. He walked me out of the grounds and around the block, then back to the institution where he stayed with me for the whole day. He wasn't about to let go. When it came time to leave, he began to cry. But I began to cry, too. . . . George is still there.''
Does President Reagan take part in Mrs. Reagan's visits?
She smiles as she shakes her head. ''He has a few other things on his mind.''
If Mrs. Reagan were eligible for the program, would she take part in it? Income level is what keeps her out now.
''Of course. It's part of what we need in this country - more people caring for each other and volunteering to help each other.
''You begin to live when you begin to serve. You feel better. Your life is richer and fuller. And the feeling of making somebody else's life easier and happier is very fulfilling.''
Mrs. Reagan appears cautious in her speech. Clearly, her perception that anything she says will be subjected to study and perhaps distortion has made it difficult to simply blurt out what comes to mind. Her words, which seem at times to be halting, are actually just carefully measured. She smiles often as she speaks.
Mrs. Reagan indicated that she has a book coming out about the program in November. And there is a recording of a song, ''To Love A Child,'' written by Hal David and Joseph Raposo. All of the proceeds from these will go to the Foster Grandparents program.
Since she, like her husband, was once a performing artist, does she sing on the record?
She laughs. ''No, I'm afraid Frank Sinatra sings it a little better than I could.''
The waters were warming up a bit. ''It has been announced that Princess Grace is going to return to the movies. Might Nancy Reagan ever do the same when she is no longer in the White House? Does she miss being in movies?''
''Not at all. And especially right now. What would I do with my clothes on?
''Acting in movies is not in my realm of thinking at present but I've learned from experience that you never say 'never.' I certainly don't anticipate doing more movies.''
Might we ever see the President as The Gipper again?
''No. No.'' Again, the laugh.
Mrs. Reagan's interest in the drug-addiction problem was made known during the campaign, so it would be unfair to attribute it to mere emergency imagemaking.
''I am very disturbed when I read the newspapers and see on television all those young kids being picked up for possession of heroin at age five or something. I am especially interested now in programs in which both parents and children take part.
''What I would like to see happen is more involvement by the parent. Parents are forming groups all over the country to combat drug addiction among their children. When the drug thing started in the 1960s, parents didn't know anything about drugs, or how to recognize addiction in their own children, what to do about it. If they found their child was on drugs, they were embarrassed. They felt the child was the only one involved. Or they were too busy.
''But now these parent groups like Straight are turning up all over the country.'' Mrs. Reagan visited Straight, Inc., a drug-treatment program primarily for adolescents, during her trip to Florida in February. ''The self-consciousness is gone because they know this problem affects families in all walks of life. I am especially interested in the volunteer, nonfunded organizations in which people are more aware of their own responsibilities. In the past I think they tended to turn the problem over to schools, police, government, anybody but themselves. Finally they are realizing that they can't evade the responsibility for their own children.''
Won't cuts in the budget affect these groups?
She chuckles. ''There you go again . . . .
''An organization like Straight doesn't take a penny from the government. And they don't want to. They are very firm that they don't want to.
''I feel that's the best way. If you once become involved it's amazing how much you can do. One door opens another door. . . .
''I'm not a great authority, but I think the drug problem has its roots in the breakdown of the family. A long time ago when families were closer, the kids were not subject to so much peer pressure.''
Mrs. Reagan declines to point to a cause of the breakdown of family ties. But she does bemoan the decrease in volunteerism. ''I wish the volunteer sector of our society would get more involved in all these programs.''
How does she believe she is doing her part?
''I feel I do my part by publicizing the fact that volunteer organizations exist and trying to get more grandparent and parent groups involved.''
At Mrs. Reagan's first White House press briefing she was asked if she was going to let her husband cut the Foster Grandparents program. She replied:
''No, I'm not. Nor would he want to.''
Has the program been affected by budget cuts?
''It hasn't. But I think the foster grandparents would almost work for nothing because it does so much for their lives.''
Jack Kenyon, chief of the Foster Grandparents program said that he will not know how much his organization would be affected until the budget is final. (The program falls under the aegis of ACTION, the administration's ''do good'' umbrella organization.) At present he is acting on a contingency resolution that permits him to continue operations at the same level.
''Mrs. Reagan's primary thrust,'' he said, ''is to increase public awareness of this program. She's put a lot of herself into this by making TV and radio public-service announcements, appearing on talk shows, writing stories for magazines with all funds sent here to be used in the program. She really tells our story so beautifully. . . .''
Mrs. Reagan stands up, preparing to race away for her next appointment. She smooths her red and black Adolfo suit.
Nancy Reagan, chic and well-groomed as she always appears to be, has been used to casual California ranch-style living in recent years. Doesn't she feel imprisoned in the White House?
''Well, it is very confining for obvious reasons. I can't get out very much.''
Does she ever get a chance even to walk across the street to Lafayette Park for a bit of fresh air?
She sadly, silently mouths the word ''No.''
I left the White House through the East Gate, then walked a few hundred yards to Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, and sat down on a bench. All around me were the pup tents in which dissenters and protesters were apparently living. They had been moved away from the White House gates.