Reagan Image-Maker Changed American Politics

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 19, 2007

Michael K. Deaver, 69, the media maestro who shaped President Ronald Reagan's public image for 20 years, transforming American politics with his powerful gift for image-making, died of pancreatic cancer yesterday at his home in Bethesda.

As the White House deputy chief of staff during the first term of the Reagan presidency, Deaver orchestrated Reagan's every public appearance, staging announcements with an eye for television and news cameras. From a West Wing office adjacent to the Oval Office, Deaver did more than anyone before him to package and control the presidential image.

After his years in the White House, Deaver endured a public fall from grace when he was convicted of perjury for lying to Congress and a federal grand jury about his lobbying business. He later atoned for his misdeeds through unpublicized charitable works and regained his standing as a prominent Washington power broker.

A close friend of both President Reagan and his wife since their days in the California governor's mansion, Deaver introduced the "photo op," which positioned the former actor in visually irresistible locations where troublesome reporters' questions could not intrude: atop the Great Wall of China, on the beach at Normandy for the 40th anniversary of D-Day or in front of a construction site as the president announced the latest government report on housing starts.

"I've always said the only thing I did is light him well," he said. "My job was filling up the space around the head. I didn't make Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan made me."

Deaver once even saved the future president's life. On a campaign plane in 1976, Reagan began choking on a peanut. Deaver wrapped his arms around the candidate from behind and drove his fists inward and upward below his diaphragm. On the second try, the nut flew out.

Ever protective of the president, Deaver limited access to Reagan in a way unprecedented in the modern presidency. "The more you expose yourself, the more you expose yourself to trivialization," he told the New York Times in 1993. "And if things start not working, people are going to say, 'Get off your rear, quit talking and do something about it.' "

Deaver's belief in the importance of memorable visuals was confirmed to his own detriment. Not quite a year after he left the White House to start a successful lobbying business, he appeared on the March 3, 1986, cover of Time magazine. Well-dressed, telephone pressed to his ear, a smug-looking Deaver sat in the richly appointed back seat of a limousine, with the U.S. Capitol dome over his shoulder.

"Who's This Man Calling?" the headline asked, then answered: "Influence Peddling in Washington." In case Deaver wasn't recognized, his name was printed over his knee.

That was the moment when Deaver's rags-to-riches life combusted. Popular opinion demanded a crackdown on Washington's business-as-usual practices. The news media and a Democratic Congress obliged, targeting a close friend of the Republican president who was seen as cashing in on his access.

Within months, stories implying that Deaver used his Oval Office connections for monetary gain abounded. One said that he had lobbied the director of the Office of Management and Budget on behalf of Rockwell International over the B-1 bomber; others alleged that he had signed a $105,000 contract to represent the Canadian government six days after leaving the White House. Columnist William Safire called Deaver "Reagan's Billy Carter."

Attempting to restore his reputation, Deaver agreed with a call for an independent counsel to investigate him. He testified for days before Congress and a grand jury. In the end, the only criminal charges he faced stemmed from that testimony; he was convicted in 1987 on three counts of perjury for giving false testimony to a congressional investigative subcommittee and a grand jury.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company