Aide focused Reagan's image

Deputy controlled the central visuals of a presidency

Michael Deaver 1938-2007

August 19, 2007|By Johanna Neuman | Johanna Neuman,Los Angeles Times

Michael K. Deaver, the media maestro whose keen sense of the visual helped choreograph the Reagan presidency and in the process changed American politics, died yesterday morning at his home in Bethesda. He was 69.

Mr. Deaver had been battling pancreatic cancer. In a statement, his family praised his "courage, grace and good spirit" and called him "the model of a man who not only loved life, but lived life right, one day at a time."

Known as "Magic Mike" for polishing the images of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Mr. Deaver followed the couple from the California governor's mansion in Sacramento to the White House in Washington and all but created "the photo op."

In a statement, Nancy Reagan said Mr. Deaver was "like a son to Ronnie" and "the closest of friends to both Ronnie and me in many ways."

"Our lives were so blessed by his love and friendship for over 40 years," she said.

As deputy chief of staff - one of a "troika" of aides who ran the Reagan presidency in the early years, along with chief of staff James A. Baker III and counselor to the president Edwin Meese III - Mr. Deaver served to protect the image of the president and the first lady.

"He is the godfather of our business," Mark McKinnon, a political consultant who helped steer George W. Bush's first presidential campaign, told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. "He plowed a lot of ground that we now tread. Deaver was one of the first guys to understand the power of media, of pictures and images."

His flawless backdrops - of President Reagan in a divided Berlin demanding that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev "tear down this wall," or of the president honoring "the boys of Point du Hoc" in Normandy at ceremonies marking the anniversary of D-Day in Europe, or even of Mr. Reagan being laid to rest as the sun set over his presidential library in Simi Valley, California - were legendary.

"We remember the Reagan presidency through those stunning visuals," Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, once said. "Image by image, Deaver took memorable visuals and paired them with memorable language."

For his part, Mr. Deaver minimized his influence.

"The only thing I did is light him well," he often said. "My job was filling up the space around the head. I didn't make Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan made me," he told the Times in 2001.

Mr. Deaver's gift for framing the political image came early.

One of his first breaks was working for Republican (and former actor) George Murphy in his 1964 U.S. Senate campaign against Democrat Pierre Salinger. Mr. Deaver followed Mr. Salinger - the former press secretary to slain President John F. Kennedy - to many a campaign stop, offering him a cigar as he stepped out of his car. Mr. Deaver recounted in his memoirs that Mr. Salinger would accept the cigar and stick it in his mouth, giving photographers a ready shot of a fat cat - hardly the man-of-the-people portrait a Democrat might prefer.

But Mr. Deaver also suffered the ignominious fall that sometimes afflicts the influential.

He had been drinking heavily in his last few months in government service, and when he hung out a shingle to start his own consulting business after Mr. Reagan's first term, he was able to make top dollar, reportedly billing more than $3 million for his advice. He posed for an infamous Time magazine cover in 1986. Sitting in the back seat of a limousine with a car phone pressed to his ear, the Capitol dome visible out the window, Mr. Deaver became the image for Time's story on influence peddling.

The cover caused a furor, reinforcing public suspicion about a revolving door between government service and get-rich consultancy. Mr. Deaver sought to stem the damage by calling for an independent counsel. Within a year, he had been convicted of three counts of perjury and sentenced to 1,500 hours of community service and a $100,000 fine.

"The biggest mistake I made was that I never really took the time [to] understand ... my own public persona," he said in 1988.

After rehabilitation from addiction to alcohol, Mr. Deaver joined Edelman Public Relations as vice president. In the years since, Mr. Deaver also wrote a number of best-sellers about the Reagans.

During an interview with the Times in 1988, Mr. Deaver was asked if he had erred in tethering himself so closely to the Reagans.

"My obit will probably say, `Close Reagan Aide Dies,'" he said. "That doesn't bother me a bit. That's my life. That's probably my greatest achievement."

Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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