Michael Deaver, worked for Ronald Reagan for more than 20 years, was philosophical about being in Reagan's shadow. "My obit will probably say 'Close Reagan Aide Dies,' " he told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. "That doesn't bother me a bit. That's my life."
When Deaver, 69, died Saturday of pancreatic cancer, his obituaries indeed highlighted his longtime association with both Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Historian Douglas Brinkley, who edited the recently released "The Reagan Diaries," says Deaver's "exceedingly close" ties to the Reagans allowed him to "learn how to properly market" the president. "He became one of the greatest crafters of stage designs for a president."
Time magazine dubbed him "the vicar of visuals." Who can forget the backdrop of Reagan calling on Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" in front of the Brandenburg Gate, or the stunning cliffs in Normandy during the 40th anniversary of D-Day, as Reagan saluted "the boys of Pointe du Hoc" who had scaled them in the face of withering German fire.
Mike Deaver was always on the lookout for ways to present Ronald Reagan in the best possible light, and I saw that firsthand as a Sacramento high school student during Reagan's last year as California governor.
Reagan, who had come to office in 1967 promising to crack down on campus unrest, frequently clashed with student protesters and hippies. Once Reagan told a crowd that "the last bunch of people here were carrying signs that said 'make love, not war,' but they didn't look capable of doing either."
Yet Reagan was determined to connect with young people. Deaver and his deputy, the late Joe Holmes, came up with the idea that the governor should hold a weekly "news conference" with high school students and answer their questions about state government and national issues. "The theory was that high school students still lived at home with their parents, hadn't been radicalized by liberal professors yet, and still showed some respect to adults," Deaver once told me.
The 30-minute show, "The Governor and the Students," was taped on a weekday after school, then sent to TV stations all over the state for them to air as they wished at no cost. During the program's last year, my civics teacher recommended me as a "panelist" on the show. After the first taping, Deaver pulled me over and asked if I would like to do it again. Flustered, I stuttered "Sure." I wound up appearing on a few more shows asking the governor questions.
Thus began my lifelong fascination with Ronald Reagan. Because the format was informal and low-pressure, he often got off some of his best one-liners and most insightful observations, and a book of the best quotes from the show was later published. "I am often asked what the difference between a small businessman and a big businessman is," he told us once. "My answer is that a big businessman is what a small businessman would be if only the government would get out of the way and leave him alone."
When asked what advice he would give young people on how to get ahead in life, Reagan observed "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't care who gets the credit." He said he kept a plaque on his desk with those words to constantly remind him of them. That plaque remained on Reagan's desk when he went to the Oval Office.
Reagan made flubs on occasion. He got a little flustered during the taping of the last show, just a few weeks before he left office as governor. I asked him how he could say he had truly run a conservative administration when he had raised taxes overall, increased the number of state employees, and presided over dramatic growth in the state budget. He gave a somewhat evasive answer that centered on his having a Democratic Legislature for six of his eight years in office.
Afterwards, a couple of my fellow students attacked me for being disrespectful of the governor. Seeing this, Reagan came over and told them to lay off. "I didn't anticipate that question," he told us. He said he had learned a lot since his days as a rookie governor who'd never held public office, and that if he ever ran for something again we'd see he had learned some lessons. Indeed, it turned out that even though during his presidency he similarly failed to convince Democratic legislators to reduce the size of government, he was far more accomplished at implementing his overall goals than he had been as governor.
Reagan wasn't done. With a somewhat impatient Mike Deaver looking on, one of us asked him how he prepared for his speeches. A beaming Reagan sat down and proceeded to explain how he would cram quotes and articles citations on 4-by-6 index cards that he color-coded by issue category. He showed us some of the cards and explained that he could vary their order and selection to create a completely fresh speech from old material. Finally, Reagan had to leave for his next appointment. Deaver turned around as he left with the governor and told us we had just been give n a valuable gift by a master and we should remember it. I did. To this day, I still use Reagan's basic method when preparing my own speeches.
I saw Mike Deaver only sporadically after that. He left the White House in 1985 and ran into legal trouble when he foolishly posed for a Time magazine cover story on the influence of lobbyists in Washington. A subsequent investigation by a special prosecutor led to his conviction for perjury, and he was sentenced to a fine and 1,500 hours of community service. Reagan's recently published diaries notes that the president had wanted to pardon Deaver as he left office in 1989, "but Mike has passed the word that he won't accept a pardon." Deaver went on to rehabilitate himself as the successful head of the Washington office of Edelman International, a top public relations firm.
This spring, Deaver opined on the 2008 presidential field, telling London's Daily Telegraph that, as the paper put it, he saw "the same raw material in Fred Thompson as was perceived in Ronald Reagan." Deaver said of Thompson, "He is very popular in his party. He could change this whole thing and turn this primary system upside down."
Deaver made clear later that while he considered Mr. Thompson "a great guy," he wasn't endorsing him for president. It's unclear if any of the GOP candidates will fulfill the hopes of voters looking for someone with Reagan's qualities. But to the extent they will be trying, they are taking lessons not only from the Gipper but from Mike Deaver, the man who could be called the "director" of the Reagan presidency.