The Man Behind the Magic

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By Lou Cannon
Monday, August 20, 2007

Michael Deaver will be remembered as Ronald Reagan's magic man, the impresario who orchestrated presidential performances, ordered up the backdrops (usually blue) and carefully staged historical remembrances such as the splendid observance of the D-Day anniversary on the beaches of Normandy in 1984. All of that is well and good, but Deaver's importance transcended stagecraft.

Deaver was one of a handful of aides who joined Reagan early in his California governorship and stayed with him through most of his presidency. His adoration, though, was not automatic: Deaver spoke truth to power at crucial moments.

Late in 1986, for example, after disclosures that Reagan had secretly approved arms sales to Iran and that national security aides had diverted some of the proceeds to the Nicaraguan contras, Reagan fired the mastermind of this diversion and the national security adviser who had known of it. He accepted the resignation of CIA Director William Casey. But Reagan refused to fire his chief of staff, Donald T. Regan, whom a board of inquiry would later say bore "primary responsibility for the chaos that descended upon the White House" after the Iran-contra disclosures.

Deaver confronted the president, urging him to rid himself of Regan. They had the following exchange:

Reagan: "I'll be goddamned if I'll throw somebody else out to save my own ass."

Deaver: "It's not your ass I'm talking about. You stood up on the steps of the Capitol and took an oath to defend the Constitution and this office. You've got to think of the country first."

Reagan: "I've always thought of the country." He then threw his pen so hard it bounced off the carpet.

Political strategist Stuart K. Spencer, the only other person present, confirmed this exchange. Spencer said nothing during the meeting, knowing that Reagan didn't change his mind when he was angry. He expected that Nancy Reagan and Deaver would wear him down over time, as they did.

Deaver was running Republican campaigns in central California when William Clark, Cabinet secretary to then-Gov. Reagan, brought him to Sacramento in 1967. He was assigned "the Mommy Watch," which meant looking after Mrs. Reagan. Many staff members were afraid of her, but Deaver realized at once that she was a tremendous political asset who needed help implementing her ideas. They became allies and then friends. Reagan appreciated what Deaver had done and over time formed a bond with him that bordered on the filial.

Reagan was normally sanguine about changes in his supporting cast as he climbed the political ladder. Deaver was an exception. In 1980, Deaver became involved in a power struggle with strategist John Sears, who had gradually forced most of the Californians out of Reagan's presidential campaign. Tired of the infighting, Deaver resigned during a meeting at the Reagan home in Pacific Palisades. Reagan followed him to the front door, urging him to stay, then returned in a fury to the living room.

"The biggest man here just left this room," Reagan said. "He was willing to accommodate and compromise, and you bastards wouldn't." That marked the beginning of the end for Sears. Within a few months he was gone, the Californians were back and Deaver would be at Reagan's side until May 1985.

That meeting was also a wake-up call for Deaver. He had been accessible to reporters in Sacramento but became a bit lordly during Reagan's presidential campaigns. After I wrote a pre-convention story in The Post in 1976 saying that Reagan didn't have enough delegates to wrest the Republican nomination from President Gerald Ford, neither Sears nor Deaver would return my calls. Deaver called shortly after he walked out of the Reagans' living room, and I asked if we were on speaking terms again. "I'm on the outs now, just like you were," he said honestly.

We had a close but prickly relationship during much of the Reagan presidency. Deaver was an excellent source, but what I wrote for The Post often contradicted his gauzy portrayals of an all-wise and resourceful president. Deaver took this in stride -- "my job is to make a good president look even better," he once told me -- and much of his spinning was at the margins, often translating earthy Reagan phrases into drawing room prose. On essential questions, Iran-contra for example, he told the truth -- to the president as well as to the media.

Deaver also had an ironic sense about the company a president keeps. After a fundraiser at the home of a Las Vegas entertainer that was attended by various unsavory sorts, many of whom clamored to have their pictures taken with the president, Deaver told me quietly, "We ought to round up all those pictures and turn them over to the FBI."

The strains of White House service took a toll that was exacerbated by Deaver's private battle with alcoholism. Against Mrs. Reagan's advice, Deaver left the White House and immediately proved successful in public relations. In 1986, he posed for a Time magazine cover (again despite Mrs. Reagan's advice) that made him a poster child for a story on influence peddling. A special counsel indicted Deaver, and he was convicted of perjury after putting up a minimal legal defense and saying that his memory was clouded -- as it doubtless was -- by alcoholism. Stripped of his assets, Deaver performed community service and entered an alcoholic rehabilitation program before returning to public relations.

Deaver's wisdom -- and his decency -- were demonstrated in his refusal to accept a pardon from President Reagan for his transgressions. He thought a pardon might tarnish Reagan's image. That was something Deaver always protected, even at the cost of his own.

Lou Cannon, who covered the White House for The Post during the Nixon, Ford and Reagan presidencies, is the author of five books on Ronald Reagan and co-author of the forthcoming "Reagan's Disciple: What George W. Bush Did to the Reagan Revolution."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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