Former White House aide Michael K. Deaver, convicted of perjury almost three years ago, told a small Episcopal congregation in Georgetown yesterday that "the most fundamental event of my life" has been what he called his "spiritual recovery."
In his first public remarks about his rediscovered belief in God, Deaver, the man in charge of making sure that President Reagan looked good on television, said he used to believe he was the center of the universe. "We are raised in a culture that says we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, there's nothing we can't do," he said. "I believed that. Now I know that He, not me, is the center."
He opened his short address with an anecdote about a recent airplane flight he took to St. Louis. A flight attendant came around to offer drinks, he said, and when he answered, "Coffee, black," the man sitting next to him said, "Say, didn't you used to be somebody?"
Deaver said he nodded and the man persisted: "Who were you?" So Deaver told him, and the man nodded his head, "Yeah, that's right, I knew I knew you."
Deaver was riding high when he left the Reagan administration in 1985 and established a lucrative lobbying firm in Washington. Then came the fall: Investigated by Congress and a federal grand jury on charges of violating conflict-of-interest laws by lobbying the Reagan administration, he was convicted of lying and sentenced to three years' probation and 1,500 hours of community service. He also was fined $100,000.
By then he was saying he was an alcoholic, and he cited alcoholism during his sentencing. But he did not know he needed God's help to conquer the disease, he said yesterday. That moment came at a rehabilitation program in Havre de Grace, Md., as he read the inspirational book "Twenty-Four Hours a Day," particularly a passage that said everyone, at some point, experiences "deep down the reality of God."
Deaver, 52, spoke yesterday in place of a sermon to about three dozen worshipers at Episcopal Heritage Church. He said he was speaking out reluctantly, and because he was invited by the priest, the Rev. Paul Hewett. He said he has no intention of turning his faith into a full-time occupation the way convicted Watergate co-conspirator Charles Colson has.
Before his religious experience on retreat, Deaver said, he was "not even" a nominal Christian. While in California as an aide to Gov. Reagan, he was an officer in a Sacramento Episcopal Church. But when he and his family moved to Washington in 1980, he dropped all church activities. "I'd work six days a week, 12 hours a day and on Sunday, I'd collapse," he said.
His final collapse, however, came during his rehabilitation. "I was frighteningly confused, and alone," he recalled. He did a lot of reading, he said, including the play "J.B." by Archibald MacLeish, a dialogue between the Biblical figure Job and God over God's existence and justice.
A belief in God meant "I never again had to be unloved or worry about my God being there for me," he said. Deaver said he also has come to believe that God "speaks through other people." He recalled for his audience having lunch with Mother Teresa several years ago. He said he was "not excited by the idea of having lunch with her, I had lots of other things to do . . . .
"I asked her, 'How many people die on the streets of Calcutta?' She said, 'None.' I said, 'How can that be?' She said, 'We pick them all up.' "
He said he has thought of Mother Teresa several times since then, while counseling addicts at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter in Northwest.
In a coffee hour after yesterday's service, Deaver said he spends about 40 hours a month at the shelter as part of his community service.
"I had never seen the urban poor before," he said. "They have such problems, especially the urban black poor. That sounds naive, I guess."
Deaver received a polite welcome downstairs as several members of the congregation asked him questions. "What books do you recommend reading?" one woman asked. When he answered with the names of two popular tomes -- M. Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled" and Harold Kushner's "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" -- the parishioner looked a bit perturbed and offered him a less well-known, more scholarly work.
The church where Deaver spoke is one of a small group of conservative Episcopal congregations in the country that have separated from the mainline Episcopal Church, primarily over ordination of women. Deaver said he attends Christ Church in Georgetown, a mainline parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.