Image guru set the stage for Reagan

Times Staff Writers

Michael K. Deaver, the media maestro who choreographed the look of the Reagan presidency, forever changing the way presidents are presented to the public, died Saturday at home in Bethesda, Md. He was 69.

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year ago, Deaver had just returned from a family vacation at Fallen Leaf Lake, Calif., just south of Lake Tahoe, according to friends.

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan, in a statement, described the deep friendship that she and President Reagan shared with Deaver.

“Mike was the closest of friends to both Ronnie and me in many ways, and he was like a son to Ronnie,” she said. “Our lives were so blessed by his love and friendship over 40 years. We met great challenges together, not just in Sacramento during Ronnie’s years as governor, but certainly during our time at the White House. I will miss Mike terribly.”


From President Bush’s ranch outside Crawford, Texas, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said that Deaver “knew the importance in a democracy of communicating with the American people, and he will be missed.”

Deaver, as deputy chief of staff -- one of a troika of aides who ran the Reagan presidency in the first term, along with Chief of Staff James A. Baker III and Counselor to the President Edwin M. Meese III -- saw his job as burnishing the images of the president and the first lady.

“Reagan was the Earth, and Deaver was the moon,” said Kenneth L. Khachigian, a San Clemente lawyer who served as Reagan’s chief presidential speechwriter. Deaver “had a single client. He had only one agenda.”

Deaver’s flawless backdrops featuring Reagan were legendary: the president in a divided Berlin demanding that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev “tear down this wall,” or at Normandy for the 40th anniversary of D-day saluting “the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” or even at his presidential library in Simi Valley, as he was laid to rest with the setting of the California sun.


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

But Deaver was only able to manipulate the images, observers say, because he had a client who trusted him.

“Deaver is curiously an underrated figure,” Reagan biographer Lou Cannon said. “Lots of people can do backdrops. Deaver was one of the few advisors who Ronald Reagan emotionally cared about.”

When the Iran-Contra scandal broke, embroiling the White House in controversy over trading arms to Iran to free American hostages, his close ties allowed Deaver to “talk truth to power,” Cannon said. “Deaver was really blunt. He told Reagan he had to apologize.” And whenever Reagan faced a major speech, Khachigian said, Deaver got the president “emotionally connected” to its themes.


Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, who was with Deaver during his last public appearance, in May at the National Archives, said the combination of Deaver’s eye for the visual and his relationship with Reagan made him a historic figure.

“He was exceedingly close to Ronald Reagan, almost an auxiliary member of family,” Brinkley said. “That allowed Deaver as a salesperson to learn how to properly market him. He could intuit every wrinkle in Reagan’s eyes, and he become one of the greatest crafters of stage designs for a president.”

For his part, Deaver minimized his influence in the White House.

“The only thing I did is light him well,” he often said.


In an interview with The Times in 2001, he added: “My job was filling up the space around the head. I didn’t make Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan made me.”

Early on, Deaver showed a knack for framing the politician’s image.

One of his first jobs was working for California Republican George Murphy, a former actor, in his 1964 U.S. Senate campaign against Democrat Pierre Salinger, President Kennedy’s former press secretary.

To present Salinger in his worst light, Deaver followed him to many a campaign stop, offering him a cigar as he stepped out of his car. Deaver later recalled that Salinger would stick the cigar in his mouth, giving photographers a ready shot of a fat cat -- hardly the man-of-the-people portrait a Democrat might prefer.


Deaver wrote in his 1988 memoir, “Behind the Scenes,” that when he told Salinger the story 20 years later -- over lunch at Maxim’s in Paris -- Salinger exclaimed, “You son of a bitch!”

During Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, Deaver was forced out by campaign manager John Sears, along with staffers Jim Lake and Charles Black. Reagan was upset, writing in his memoir, “An American Life,” that he told the remaining staff: “You’ve just driven away someone who’s probably a better man than the three of you are.”

For all the glory of his proximity to power, Deaver also suffered the ignominious fall that sometimes afflicts the influential. Leaving the Reagan White House after the first term, he set out to make the big money he had come to admire in so many of Reagan’s wealthy friends -- the Walter Annenbergs, the William French Smiths, the Alfred S. Bloomingdales.

When he started his own consulting business, Deaver was able to make top dollar. So cocky was Deaver about his status as the Man Who Made Reagan that 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 and the Capitol dome visible out the window, Deaver became the poster child for Time’s story on influence peddling in Washington. In her memoir, “My Turn,” Nancy Reagan said she warned him the cover was “a big mistake.”


The cover caused a furor, reinforcing public suspicion about a revolving door between government service and get-rich consultancy. 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. He insisted that he was innocent, that his faulty memory when answering questions stemmed from alcoholism; he had been drinking heavily in his last few months in government service. The son of recovering alcoholics entered a rehabilitation program in Maryland.

“The biggest mistake I made was that I never really took the time [to] understand . . . my own public persona,” he told The Times in 1988, noting that if he had been his own client, he would have advised against posing for the cover. Years later, asked why the image guru had not protected his own, Deaver replied, “Why do the minister’s sons get in trouble?”

Unlike other high-ranking officials, Deaver did not seek a presidential pardon. In “The Reagan Diaries,” Reagan noted in an entry from Jan. 16, 1989 -- days before he left office -- that a Deaver relative had called a Justice Department official “about a pardon for Mike,” but added, “Mike has passed the word he wouldn’t accept a pardon.”

Later, a sober Deaver joined Edelman Public Relations as executive vice president, grabbing a second chance to share his knowledge of how to best advise clients and introducing a new generation to his insights.


“From the moment he joined Edelman in the spring of 1992 he changed the way we were perceived by the outside world and how we felt about ourselves,” the company said in a statement Saturday. “He immediately elevated our standing in the public affairs arena and gave us instant credibility, enabling us to take on the toughest public relations challenges.”

Deaver also wrote four books about the Reagans, including “Nancy: A Portrait of My Years With Nancy Reagan” (2004) and “A Different Drummer: My Thirty Years With Ronald Reagan” (2001).

A confidant from the beginning, Deaver was the person the Reagans turned to in 1994 when they sought to disclose publicly that the former president, living in California, had developed Alzheimer’s disease. The statement the Reagans issued included no Deaver-esque images, but it did contain words that evoked the visual. “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” the statement said. “I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”

Deaver was born in Bakersfield, one of three children of a Shell Oil distributor whose wife pinched pennies to make ends meet, and was a sickly child. Diagnosed at 8 with nephritis, a kidney disease, he was never allowed to participate in sports. Instead, he took up the piano and it won him entry to a fraternity at San Jose State -- “They needed a piano player,” he explained -- and membership, years later, in the exclusive men-only Bohemian Club in San Francisco, for the same reason.


Although he briefly toyed with becoming an Episcopal priest, Deaver steered toward politics, which had always held his academic interest. He went to work first for the California Republican Party. After Reagan was elected governor in 1966, William P. Clark -- who later became Reagan’s national security advisor -- asked Deaver to go to Sacramento to take charge of what the inner circle derisively called “the Mommy Watch” in reference to Nancy Reagan, the state’s first lady.

In “Behind the Scenes,” Deaver recounted that Nancy Reagan “intimidated” Clark and was looking for an aide to handle her requests. Aside from a brief absence during a 1980 presidential campaign power struggle, Deaver was at her side ever after, making himself indispensable to the future first lady by answering her late-night calls, calming her fears, helping her streamline her husband’s schedule.

In his book “Nancy,” Deaver recounted the battering that the first lady’s image took in the media. In Sacramento, she was ridiculed for giving up acting to take on the role of what some likened to best supporting wife. When she solicited private funds to buy a $200,000 set of china for the White House, redecorated the first family’s living quarters and sported designer fashions, the media slammed her, accusing her of being out of touch with Americans experiencing a recession.

Even her adoring stare at her husband -- dubbed “the gaze” -- rankled some feminists. It was as if she could do nothing to win favor. If Ronald Reagan was “the Teflon president” because controversies never stuck, Deaver wrote, then Nancy Reagan might be called the “flypaper first lady,” because everything did.


Deaver helped rescue her reputation with the 1982 Gridiron Dinner, at which she donned ragged clothes and sang “Second Hand Rose” to parody her own spending excesses, and with a “Just Say No” campaign against drug use.

And after her husband’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, Deaver wrote, Nancy Reagan came into her own. “She was always reluctant about being out front,” he said. When there was nobody left to protect him and his image, she “reluctantly stepped up.”

Many of Deaver’s friends learned of his life-threatening disease through an e-mail he sent Nov. 17. Three months earlier, Deaver wrote, he had begun feeling poorly, experiencing “continuous stomach pains.”

After tests found a tumor on his pancreas, Deaver wrote, “I immediately called our friend” Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg, a senior specialist at the National Cancer Institute, who conferred with counterparts at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.


“The consensus,” Deaver wrote, “is that even though the tumor is small, it is in an impossible spot to operate. It is too close to vital organs and rests on an important artery to the liver.”

Rosenberg oversaw Deaver’s treatment with an experimental therapy that sought to boost his immune system.

Deaver underwent 90-minute treatments every three weeks for the next three months, and he maintained a steady work schedule.

During an interview with The Times in 1988, 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.”


Deaver is survived by his wife, Carolyn; daughter Amanda of Washington, D.C.; son Blair of Bend, Ore.; sister Susan Wiggins of Tehachapi, Calif.; brother William of Mojave, Calif.; and three grandchildren.

Services will be held after Labor Day. Instead of flowers, the family has requested donations to Clean & Sober Streets, P.O. Box 77114, Washington, D.C. 20013; Community Hospices, 3720 Upton St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20016; or Father Martin’s Ashley, www.fathermartins


Times staff writers Chuck Neubauer in Washington and Bob Drogin in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.