Ronald Reagan’s image-maker
15 October 2007
Michael Keith Deaver, political adviser and lobbyist: born Bakersfield, California 11 April 1938; Deputy Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan 1981-1985; married 1968 (one son, one daughter); died Bethesda, Maryland 18 August 2007.
Michael Deaver was not only one of Ronald Reagan’s most trusted advisers. He was also an image-maker for the ages, who transformed the way the US presidency is packaged. Spin doctors work with words. Deaver’s speciality was pictures – pictures that symbolised Reagan’s message and showed him in the best possible light. Not by coincidence, his heyday during Reagan’s first term came in the years when cable television emerged as a media force for the first time.
Reagan’s was a presidency of symbols, and Deaver was responsible for some of the most memorable of them: the visit to the Normandy beaches for the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the trip to divided Berlin when the President demanded of Mikhail Gorbachev that he “tear down this wall.” It was Deaver who helped devise the stunning stage set for Reagan’s funeral in 2004, at his Presidential Library in Simi Valley, at the moment the sun went down behind the California hills.
Again not by coincidence, these “Deaver moments” tended to be in settings where Reagan, the actor always most at home with a prepared script, was surrounded by cameras – not tiresome reporters with their awkward, questions.
But this father of the presidential photo-op always affected modesty. “The only thing I did is light him well,” Deaver told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “My job was filling up the space around his head. I didn’t make Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan made me.”
That was, however, an understatement of their relationship. Deaver was one of three aides – the others being Chief of Staff James Baker and Presidential Counsellor Ed Meese – who ran the White House during Reagan’s first term. In titular terms, he was Baker’s deputy, but his long friendship with the Reagans, which began when the future president was elected Governor of California in 1966, gave Deaver special influence.
Those ties made him almost a member of the family. “He was like a son to Ronnie,” Nancy Reagan said. They also allowed him to speak truth to power. Even after Deaver left the White House, Reagan listened to his advice, not least when the Iran-Contra arms scandal erupted in 1986, and Deaver insisted, successfully, that the President had to issue a public apology.
But proximity to power went to Deaver’s head. For reporters, he was an arrogant figure, notorious for never returning their calls. By the time he left the White House, early in the second Reagan term, the pressures of the job and heavy drinking had taken their toll: thus perhaps his most glaring image-making error, when during a visit to Germany in 1985 he had the President visit a war cemetery where dozens of members of Hitler’s infamous Waffen SS were buried. Despite fierce criticism, Reagan went to the cemetery, but added a trip to the site of the former concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen to make amends.
Deaver left the White House to set up his own lobbying operation. Initially it was a huge success, attracting $3m of business in just seven months, and the British firm of Saatchi was reportedly close to buying it for $18m. But the deal never happened. Deaver found himself on the cover of Time magazine in 1986, the star exhibit in a story about Washington lobbyists. “There’s no question I’ve got as good access as anyone in town,” he boasted in the article.
The consequence was a congressional probe into how former government officials exploited their contacts for private gain. Deaver was hauled to Capitol Hill to testify, and his statements led to conviction on three counts of perjury. The erstwhile White House superstar found himself sentenced to three years probation and a $100,000 fine. His reputation was ruined, and his ties with the Reagans temporarily severed. “Mike went off track and caught a bad case of Potomac fever,” Nancy Reagan tartly noted in a memoir.
Time, however, healed the rift, and in later years Deaver and the former first lady spoke to each other almost every week. In 1995 he joined the Edelman public relations firm. He also wrote four books, dealing with his White House years and his friendship with the Reagans. “My obit will probably say, ‘Close Reagan aide dies’,” Deaver said in 1988. “That doesn’t bother me a bit. That’s my life. That’s probably my greatest achievement.”