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Michael Deaver’s artistry in politics was born at the piano

They’ll hold services for Michael K. Deaver today in Washington’s National Cathedral. That’s a long way from the old Burger Spot in Mojave and the creaky frat house at San Jose State where we first met nearly 50 years ago.

Deaver -- who died at age 69 from pancreatic cancer Aug. 18 -- became known as the media maestro who shaped Ronald Reagan’s public image and forever changed the way presidents are presented. That was hype, and Deaver was the first to admit it, in public and in private.

“The fact is, just about whatever I know today about the press and public relations, I learned either from Ronald Reagan or by osmosis,” Deaver wrote in his 1987 autobiography, “Behind the Scenes.”

And in his 2001 Reagan book, “A Different Drummer,” Deaver wrote: “Those pundits who had a hard time understanding [Reagan’s] appeal insisted on giving credit to his staff for making him so attractive . . . . I can assure you it was Reagan who had the gift for connecting with people . . . . We did not make Ronald Reagan. He’s the one who made us.”

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Deaver used to regale me with anecdotes about the former movie star teaching him how to pose a subject just right, how to stage the backdrop, how to light the shot perfectly. Reagan felt at home with TV cameras but was leery of still cameras. “I can’t recover from what the still camera catches,” Reagan explained.

Deaver didn’t invent the photo op, but there’s no argument that he perfected it, learning from the master.

He had traits and talents that served Reagan superbly: Loyalty. Candor. Creativity. Guts.

But let’s go back to the beginning. Deaver was not unique. He was an ordinary middle-class kid who grew up in post-war California. Born in Bakersfield -- his dad was a Shell Oil distributor and his mom a Bakersfield Californian newspaper correspondent -- the family ultimately moved to Mojave.

“Our parents gave us two gifts: the gift of poverty and the gift of reading,” says brother William H. Deaver, 71, editor and publisher of the Mojave Desert News. “Mike loved to read.”

The family wasn’t poor, but it carefully studied price tags. It had enough, however, to give Mike piano lessons. “You could hum a song, and Mike could play it,” Bill Deaver recalls.

Summers, Mike Deaver flipped patties at the Burger Spot. “We all believed in hard work,” Bill Deaver says. “The family was Republican. But Mike wasn’t one of those -- what we used to call -- extra chromosome conservatives.”

He wasn’t extraordinary either. Deaver succeeded because he took full advantage of his opportunities -- including a then-cheap, state college education -- and made good use of his talents. That especially included piano playing.

Deaver always claimed he got into our fraternity -- Delta Sigma Phi -- because we needed a piano player. I never thought we were that particular about who was admitted.

An easy-going, joke-cracking type, Deaver earned expenses by playing nights at the Interlude, a popular San Jose piano bar. His name shined in lights above the entrance: “Michael Keith at the Piano.” Bill Deaver explains: “They thought ‘Deaver’ sounded like a hick, so they used his middle name.”

Doors open for someone who can entertain. Deaver -- a public administration major -- had an interest in politics. But I’ve always suspected he initially got hired by Santa Clara County Republicans because he could pound out tunes at small, informal fundraisers.

The cap of Deaver’s music career came in the early 1980s when, as the president’s most trusted advisor, he was invited to perform with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center. He was still awe-struck days later, describing to me “the sound of the timpani coming up from behind.”

“It was a real thrill -- one of the highlights of his career,” says daughter Amanda Deaver, 37, who has her own Washington, D.C., public relations firm. “To go from the Interlude bar in San Jose to the Kennedy Center. . . . “

The piano achieved something else for Deaver besides making connections, I figure. It nurtured his creative talents. It inspired artistry, whether at the keyboard or from behind a lens.

Reagan hummed the tune, Deaver composed the music and the president performed.

So the first lesson from Deaver’s life story is for kids: If your parents offer music lessons, take them and enjoy.

There’s another lesson: Don’t be afraid to tell your boss what he needs to hear but doesn’t want to, if that’s your job. Give him your best advice and don’t flinch, even when he starts throwing eyeglasses and pens, as Reagan sometimes did.

Deaver always spoke bluntly -- whether it was trying to talk Gov. Reagan into accepting the notion of payroll withholding of the state income tax (“Taxes should hurt,” the governor had argued) or President Reagan into firing his incapable chief of staff, Don Regan.

Reagan trusted Deaver because he knew this aide had no other agenda except to promote Ronald Reagan. And he appreciated Deaver’s respectful relationship with his wife, Nancy. Deaver’s first job with the new governor in Sacramento was the “Mommy Watch.” He actually gave her the time of day, listened closely and they all became tight.

Thus lesson three: Help -- don’t patronize -- the boss’ spouse.

Deaver and I spanned roughly the same 20-year period with Reagan -- he the ultimate insider, me the outside reporter. We had bonded at the frat house and always were friends. Now and then, he’d leak me a story. But because of our roles in life, we could never be really close.

He remained very close to two frat brothers: roommates Mike Colby of Costa Mesa, a retired landscape architect, and Berger Benson of Portola, a retired contractor. They’ll be ushers at today’s service. Johnny Mathis will sing “Amazing Grace.” Former Reagan Chief of Staff James A. Baker III will deliver a eulogy. Nancy Reagan is expected.

The service was moved to the National Cathedral -- site of Reagan’s state funeral -- to accommodate the many hundreds anticipated.

They include scores of recovering alcoholics that Deaver helped to sobriety, his cause for the last 20 years.

It has been an impressive journey -- a California Dream story.

george.skelton@latimes.com


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