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.

Washington insiders were stunned at the conviction and blamed it on Deaver's attorney's decision not to call witnesses or mount a vigorous defense. Deaver was sentenced to three years' probation and 1,500 hours community service, plus a $100,000 fine. He lost many of his clients and virtually all of his assets.

"Looking back, I guess one tip-off was that he really enjoyed the trappings of power," wrote former Reagan press secretary Larry Speakes in his memoir, "The Reagan Presidency From Inside the White House" (1988). "His office contained dozens of photographs, framed in silver, of Deaver with kings, queens, and prime ministers, many of whom he had prevailed on for autographs. There was a lot of the small-town kid from Bakersfield, California, in him, and I suppose he just got carried away with his own importance."

Born into a working-class family in Bakersfield on April 11, 1938, Deaver grew up there and in Mojave, Calif. In his youth, he worked as a newspaper delivery boy and a soda jerk, among other jobs.

Not athletic enough for sports, Deaver said his piano playing paid for college at San Jose State University and later got him into the secretive Bohemian Club. He was still in his 20s, an IBM trainee and small-time political operative when he went to Sacramento to be a bit player in the Reagan gubernatorial administration. One of his major tasks -- and one that no one else wanted -- was to deal with Nancy Reagan.

"From the inside, the reviews on Nancy were not pleasant," Deaver later wrote. "Many who dealt with her said she was at best demanding, a tough-minded political wife who needed constant attention."

But Deaver and Nancy Reagan hit it off, and he was brought into the Reagans' inner circle. So close did he become to the Reagans that he said, "I always imagined that when I died there would be a phone in my coffin, and at the other end of it would be Nancy Reagan."

When Reagan won the presidency in 1980, Deaver, his wife and growing family considered staying behind in California. But not for long. He sold his stake in a Sacramento public relations firm and moved East, where he, Edwin Meese III and James A. Baker III became the troika that ran the administration.

Deaver was seen everywhere with the president. He set the calendar and schedule, as he had in California, and focused his attention on whether a particular action would be good for Reagan.

Eschewing policy, Deaver gradually evolved into the most talented stage manager of his political generation, dubbed by Time magazine "the vicar of visuals."

His hubris earned him enemies, he later realized. He wrote in a memoir that he helped prevent Meese from becoming chief of staff and had a key role in the firings or resignations of Interior Secretary James G. Watt, budget director David A. Stockman, Secretary of State Alexander Haig and national security adviser William P. Clark, who had hired Deaver when Reagan was elected governor. Deaver didn't return phone calls, and the media considered him insufferably arrogant.

"I was careless, stupid, inattentive to the enemies I made," he wrote. "Overconfidence did me in."

But his relationship with the Reagans could not have been better. He was a routine guest at their Christmas dinner table and was often described as a member of the family. Nancy Reagan released a statement yesterday in which she said Deaver "was like a son to Ronnie."

Each time Reagan walked out to begin a formal news conference, Deaver handed him a note. Reagan would take a quick peek, then step before the cameras with a smile or a jaunty stride.

The notes, Deaver told the New York Times, were just to relax the president. "One time, it was: 'The answer to question No. 1 is, No answer. The answer to question No. 2 is, No answer. The answer to question No. 3 is, No answer.' "

Through socializing with the president's wealthy friends and supporters, the one-time fry cook, ditch digger and meter reader acquired a taste for high living that his $72,000 salary could not provide. Deaver was also burning out on his job's high-pressure demands; he did not deal with policy matters, but because of his close relationship with Reagan, he was the one who carried bad news to the president.

Deaver resigned in 1985, shortly after a presidential trip to Europe included a stop at the military cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany, where 49 Nazi SS soldiers were buried. The brief ceremony there drew strong opposition from Jewish groups, veterans and others; Deaver had made the advance arrangements and failed to foresee the uproar the Bitburg stop would cause.

But there was no sign that Reagan bore a grudge.

"I consider Mike's leaving in the nature of an amputation," Reagan said in a news conference on his aide's last day on the job. "And it is me that is suffering the amputation."

Deaver rejected a lucrative offer from the Burson-Marsteller public relations firm and started his own Washington consulting company. Its success exceeded all expectations, as he billed $3 million worth of business in just seven months from such major entities as Canada, Singapore, Mexico, Trans World Airlines and Philip Morris Inc.

Deaver bought the house next door to the one he had been renting and added a kitchen with a wall of windows. He drove a green Jaguar and furnished his office lavishly. He also retained his White House pass, saw the president's confidential daily schedule, talked weekly with Nancy Reagan and played tennis on the executive mansion's courts.

Deaver's business wasn't even a year old when the London firm Saatchi & Saatchi began negotiating to buy it for $18 million, a deal that never went through.

But those he spurned while at the heady apex of power began raising questions about whether he was selling access instead of expertise. In December 1985, after reading a news report about Deaver's reported lobbying about acid rain on behalf of the Canadian government, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) requested a General Accounting Office investigation. Journalists began tracking Deaver. The Time magazine cover accelerated the inquiries, and within months, Deaver found himself testifying before Congress and a grand jury.

Then, shocking those with whom he had worked and partied for years, he checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation center in Havre de Grace, Md.

Deaver had begun drinking heavily during the 1984 election campaign, he later said. At first, he claimed, he drank a quart of Scotch a day, but after Nancy Reagan expressed disbelief, he said alcoholism had clouded his judgment and impaired his memory, causing him to forget key moments from the past.

The defense of alcoholism was not allowed to be a factor in the jury deliberations, the trial judge ruled.

After his conviction and sentencing, Deaver gave up his appeals, although still asserting he was innocent. He held a well-publicized tag sale of his office possessions.

He wrote three books, "Behind the Scenes: In Which the Author Talks About Ronald and Nancy Reagan . . . and Himself" (1987); "A Different Drummer: My Thirty Years with Ronald Reagan," (2001); and "Nancy: A Portrait of My Years with Nancy Reagan" (2004); and edited "Why I Am a Reagan Conservative" (2005). He was Washington chairman of the Edelman public relations firm for the past 15 years.

By 1996, he was back in the GOP's good graces, meeting with former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and becoming an official of the party's 1996 convention. In recent years, Deaver's clients included British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Republic of Kazakhstan, Microsoft and Wal-Mart.

For the past 16 years, Deaver was chairman of the board of Clean and Sober Streets, a Washington substance abuse treatment center where he sometimes led counseling sessions.

"Every Christmas without fail," the center's executive director, Henry Pierce, said, "Mike would show up, serve dinner to the residents and their families, play the piano and lead the Christmas carol singing."

Deaver's survivors include his wife of 39 years, Carolyn Deaver of Bethesda; two children, Amanda Deaver of Washington and Blair Deaver of Bend, Ore.; a sister; a brother; and three grandchildren.

Staff writer Matt Schudel contributed to this report.

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