NYONE WHO focused only on the image of Nancy Reagan, as it evolved from Junior Leaguer to Dragon Lady, missed her whole story. Her priorities started to change at midday, March 30, 1981. She became more independent, and patient, and less sensitive to criticism. This is how Nancy explained her reaction to the attempt on her husband's life:

"When you go through something like that, things that were important to you before, things that upset you before, they don't upset you so much. When I was in Sacramento, I used to go home and take a bath and have imaginary conversations in the tub with people who criticized me. And, of course, I was marvelous. I don't do that anymore . . . . I reached the point where I said to myself, 'I'm going to do what I want to do. There is nothing I can do about what people say.' "

She is revealed as well by the qualities that have not changed. Her self-discipline is unwavering. When she receives guests in the residence, on the second floor of the Whitre House, she always offers them chocolate but never touches it herself.

There is the reflective Nancy, who can lose herself in a sweeping historical novel, or a thick biography, the kind that would break a toe if you dropped it on your foot. And there is the tender Nancy Reagan whose friendship has no price.

Not many people knew how close she was to the writer Truman Capote. They met through Jerry Zipkin, a lifelong bachelor and New York society fixture. A yar or two before his death, Capote was arrested in Anaheim on a charge of disorderly conduct. Nancy called me at home and begged me to get him out of jail.

I asked her what he had done.

"I don't know," she said, "but you must get him out. It will kill him."

The fear and compassion in her voice were unmistakable. She could not abide the thought of this frail, lisping little man in a jail cell. I called Ed Meese, and he arranged for Capote's release.

It is their differences, as much as the many bonds they share, that I find revealing about the Reagans. The president relaxes easily, trusts everything, is beset by few doubts.

I want to be careful not to suggest that he believes in spirits. But Ronald Reagan does not laugh off paranormal phenomena. I no longer recall why, but we were chatting on the subject of superstitions one day in the residence. Abruptly, he said: "All my life I have had a recurring dream, that I lived in a house with high ceilings. I never knew what it meant. But I read somewhere that the Lincoln bedroom is haunted. Every once in a while, I'll find Rex {his dog} running down the hall and barking at the door of the Lincoln room."

I waited for him to go on, and when he didn't I said, "Well . . . ."

The president said, unsmiling, "Well, it must be Lincoln's ghost he's barking at." I believe he was quite serious.

I doubt that Nancy Reagan, on the other hand, ever gets into a deep enough sleep to have dreams, mystical or plain. She is very intense, sometimes brittle in her manner, a compulsive user of the telephone. I always imagined that when I died there would be a phone in my coffin, and at the other end would be Nancy Reagan.

In the Oval Office, when the president referred to Nancy, he would usually grin and call her "your phone pal."

Friendships are to enjoy, not to analyze. From the outset, back in 1966, Nancy and I hit it off. It would not be far off to say the chemistry was right and leave it at that. But I believe she liked the fact that I did not try to sugarcoat the hard choices or withhold the bad news.

Nancy Reagan has been an easy target during much of her husband's political career. She struck the media, and through them the public, as a person of too many material possessions, always beautifully coiffed. She wore designer clothes, had wealthy friends, and enjoyed the social and high-fashion set.

She has become much thicker-skinned about criticism. During her husband's first year in the White House, a critical column by Evans and Novak caused her to dissolve in tears. In December 1986, I picked up a newspaper and read a story quoting the president as telling Nancy, "Get off my Goddam back," about firing Don Regan. My immediate reaction was "Uh-oh, she is going to have a fit over this."

When I talked to Nancy later that morning, what she said was "Oh, that's not important. They have to write something about somebody every day."

Once, Lou Cannon of The Washington Post described her as "formidable" in a book about California politics. She was devastated. "That's terrible word," she said. "Strong would have been much better."

When Chris Wallace reported that I had said the president slept at Cabinet meetings, I braced myself for Nancy's reaction. She shrugged it off: "We've all said things we wish we hadn't."

Her reaction to any adversity, anything she considers unfavorable, is to confront it. If she has a grievance with someone, sooner or later she goes directly to that person. If she regards you as a friend, and you disappoint her, you can always talk it out. Then it is over with, and five minutes later she may call back on a different subject.

I always knew when Nancy was unhappy with me. If I had not gotten a call from her in 24 hours, I would pick up the phone and say, "Have we got a problem?" If she said yes, I went right over. We might argue, but she never let me leave without a hug.

Most of the time I did not have to wait 24 hours. The president's health has been her main concern, just ahead of his place in history. My phone rang one day and she snapped, "I just received this week's schedule and I want to know what you think you are doing over there. You are going to kill him."

This is an area in which any first lady deserves to be heard. In spite of what was written, or what jokes were cracked about the president's work habits, overscheduling was a hard trap to avoid. I would get caught up in things and just keep adding events without deleting any.

Nancy's intensity is balanced by a sentimental streak. "Nancy," the president has said, "can puddle up when the laundry gets delivered." On the other hand, she is tougher on people than her husband is, much more demanding. She has been able, as a result, to develop around him a shield that allows him to be what he is. She will not tolerate sloppiness or stupidity, and he would.

Once a senator from a western state, a close friend of the president, failed to support him on a close vote. When the senator's wife called her on another matter, Nancy said: "I have to tell you, because I have to get this off my mind, I'm bothered by your husband's unwillingness to support Ron at a time when he needs him."

The next call Nancy received was from the senator. And the next day he was supporting the president.

Her directness, which troubles some people, has been an asset for Ronald Reagan. She has the ability to change someone's mind without giving up anything. So many people are never honest about what disturbs them. With Nancy, you rarely have to guess what is on her mind. With Nancy, you rarely have to guess what is on her mind. In the same circumstances, the president would choke it down and say nothing. If a person tries to apologize to him, he will tell then he understands, even when he may not.

Reagan is a strong man whose best personal qualities, his trust and candor and belief in people, have been taken for weakness in politics. Contrary to the belief that she moved him to the right, Nancy has been at her best in persuading him to take the longer view of history. When some of his staff wanted him to get tough with the Soviets, she argued that he should soften his language. What she saw was a man she knew wanted peace, who had been painted as strident and unyielding to the point of being a warmonger.

Nancy Reagan is not uncomfortable among free spirits and intellectuals. Most people whould be surprised by how bright she is. For all kthe speculation about her White House role, Nancy took care to pick her spots. But once into an issue, she was like a dog with a bone. She just didn't give up. It was Nancy who pushed everybody on the Geneva summit. She felt strongly that it was only in the interest of world peace but the correct move politically. She would buttonhole George Shultz, Bud McFarlane, and others, to be sure that they were moving toward that goal.

I know few professionals with a better public-relations antenna than hers. But many times Nancy will react to a problem by wanting to do away with the person who created it; or by simply trying to change whatever course or direction has caused her husband to be criticized. Would that the answers were always that simple.

In this society, people talk about true and enduring marriages the way an ecologist talks about the endangered species of the world. I have seen nothing to equal the depth of trust and affection between Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

For as long as I have observed them, the look, the touch, the feeling always has been there. When they moved to Washington from California, I was in Nancy's home in Los Angeles one day when she was wading through boxes and boxes of miscellany. At one point, she propped herself on a box and stopped to read a letter. Her eyes filled with tears.

The letter was from Ronald, written to their baby daughter Patti, while he was on a movie location in Arizona. It began: "Dear Patti, I miss you and Mom so much . . . ." And the rest of the letter was about Nancy and what she meant to him.

When we were filming the 18-minute campaign documentary that would be shown at the Republican convention in 1984, I hit on an idea to generate a series of facial expressions I wanted from the candidate. I took about fifty photographs of events that had taken place during his first term, and had them enlarged. Then I had Reagan sit down and give me a spontaneous reaction as I showed him each photo, while the camera rolled.

There was one of Nancy carrying a birthday cake. He said, "Oh, I remember that, it was taken on my seventieth birthday.

I said, "No, what does that really men to you?

He said, softly without hesitation, "I can't imagine life without her."

Nor can I imagine one without the other.

I have heard people say their marriage cannot be what it appears, that no marriage is that blissful. Of course, it would be silly to imply that they have never quarreled, or had problems or serious disagreements. But I always thought they were the one couple I ever knew who never needed anyone else. They are simply each other's best friend.

Whenever Nancy leaves on a trip of her own, Reagan has trouble sleeping at night. He would drop by the Deaver or Jim Baker house in D.C. for dinner, or I would arrange for guests to visit and watch a movie with him. Anything to give him something to do.

Those who clash with her will perpetuate the image of Nancy Reagan as the Invisible Hand, manipulating, ruthless in dealing not only with her husband's adversaries but with friends who let him down. Let the record show that she acted, when she acted, only to protect the president. She does not set policy or attend Cabinet meetings or promote her own agenda. I suppose we have looked for that side of most presidential wives.

Nancy has worked hard to overcome the negative publicity of her first years in Washington; the frivolous, acquisitive first lady whose preoccupations were designer gowns and expensive china. For the first time, she has been admired for the person she is, and not just as Ronald Reagan's wife. Really, of the two of them, Nancy has made the greater stretch. She came to Sacramento tabbed as pretty much a country clubber, unprepared for the criticism they were bound to attract.

She is often described as the classic worrier, which is part of what makes them mesh so well. When he is off work, he is off. And Nancy goes on worrying about all the things he has put aside.

She has made sacrifices. The ranch means much less to her than it does to him. She goes, and stays a month, when I have no doubt she would rather be in Los Angeles with friends. The ranch is isolated, the house tiny and confining. I think, given her druthers, she would prefer not to spend hours a day riding a horse. But she continues to do it. She is a very, very disciplined person.

Akey to Nancy is the fact that she is a wonderful flirt, in a genteel kind of way. She can charm the socks off anybody when she is so moved. At times she does it because she finds a person interesting; many times she will use this power for Ronald Reagan.

It was an education to see her turn up the kilowatts for Andrei Gromyko, the very stony and gruff Russian ambassador. He and the president had huddled in the Oval Office for forty minutes one day, while staff people kept insisting that they had to break for lunch.

Reagan, trying to be a sensitive host, showed Gromyko his private bathroom and asked, "Would you like to wash your hands?"

Gromyko said no.

Then Reagan asked again. "Would you like to use the facilities?"

Again, no, this time louder.

The president tried once more. "What I mean is, would you like to go to the toilet?"

And Gromyko said, "Oh, da, all right."

Finally, we made it over to the Red Room for light refreshments before lunch, and Nancy popped in for a surprise visit. She walked over to Gromyko, and for the first time, I saw him smile. Later, as he was leaving, he leaned over to her and said, "Whisper the word peace to her husband every night."

She replied, "I will. And I am also going to whisper peace to you every night."

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Michael Deaver was President Reagan's deputy chief of staff. Mickey Herskowitz is a Texas-based author. This article is excerpted from their book, "Behind the Scenes."