Few presidents have preferred harmony and continuity in their immediate surroundings more than Ronald Reagan, who has long depended on the counsel of a handful of intimates with him at the beginning in California.

Despite Reagan's preference for stability, his administration is awash in change even before his second term. Leading the exodus from government into private life are three Californians whose careers have been entwined with Reagan's -- Attorney General William French Smith, Interior Secretary William P. Clark and deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver.

If all goes as planned, Deaver will leave the White House and Smith will return to his Los Angeles law firm at about the same time in early spring that White House counselor Edwin Meese III, another member of the original Reagan team, moves into Smith's job. For the first time, the president will be surrounded entirely by those who marched to the music of other political drummers before Reagan hired them.

There are those in Washington who never cared for the Californians, many of whom tended to view the federal government as a big Sacramento. There are others who had no generic objections and think that Deaver or Clark, in different ways, fostered Reagan's reliance on symbolism rather than substance.

Deaver, in particular, was seen by his critics as a genial master of backdrops and balloons who remained singularly untroubled and largely uninformed about policy considerations. While everyone acknowledged Deaver's public-relations skills, his interests in such public issues as hardships caused by Reagan budget cuts often seemed limited to defusing public concerns with favorable "photo opportunities."

These criticisms have some merit but understate Deaver's value to the president. Closer to Reagan and his wife, Nancy, than any other aide, Deaver was an expert in reading the president's moods and determining when the time was right to put a significant proposal before him.

Deaver teamed with Nancy Reagan and longtime political adviser Stuart Spencer in 1980 to persuade Reagan to select James A. Baker III as White House chief of staff. Baker, who had managed the campaign of two successive Reagan opponents, seemed an unlikely choice, but his selection proved the key to the president's first-term success with Congress.

Deaver also promoted the ascension of Secretary of State George P. Shultz in White House councils and, with Nancy Reagan, pushed for the president's new willingness to seek better relations with the Soviet Union.

"When it comes down to the big questions, Deaver does the right thing," his ally Spencer says. Certainly, when he has bothered to engage himself, Deaver has been a voice for moderation in the Reagan White House.

Clark, an adversary and target of Deaver, also will be missed, not just by conservatives who venerated him.

Ever since he took over Gov. Reagan's staff in California in 1967 when it was shaken by scandal and confusion, Clark has played the role of fix-it man in difficult situations.

Like Reagan, Clark has always been underestimated. And like Deaver, he came up the hard way, once dropping out of law school because of bad grades when he was working full time to support himself.

But Clark won the respect of subordinates and the state legislature as chief of staff at the low point of Reagan's governorship. Later, he proved a center of controversy on the state Supreme Court, but his opinions won the respect of many who disagreed with Clark's conservative conclusions.

Called in by Reagan and Meese as Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s deputy, Clark gave good advice that Haig never heeded, telling him, "You can't crowd Ronald Reagan." Clark's subsequent tenure as national security affairs adviser was clouded. He helped Reagan become seriously engaged in foreign policy but also was architect of an ill-advised probe of White House foes on the subject of supposed "leaks" that damaged no one. Fittingly, Clark finished his troubleshooting tenure as as the conciliator he had been in Sacramento. At Interior, following James G. Watt, Clark restored respect and civilized behavior to the office he occupied while carrying out Reagan policies. The esteemed Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), who had no use for Watt, found Clark a "reasonable and considerate" adversary, a view Clark shared of Udall.

I have known Deaver and Clark for 18 years and written critically of Deaver's disengagement and Clark's masterminding of that unfortunate probe of the White House staff. But, on balance, a good case could be made that Reagan wouldn't be serving a second term if they hadn't been around in critical moments. The president is going to miss them both.