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It Gets Lonelier at the Top

January 06, 1985

Some of the most difficult periods of Ronald Reagan's political career occurred when events forced changes in his top staff. Invariably Reagan turned to his small pool of close friends and aides who had been with him since the 1960s. During one crisis in the California governor's office, William P. Clark and Michael K. Deaver filled a sudden void in Reagan's top staff. Climaxing a confused and dissension-wracked period of the 1980 election campaign, Reagan turned to the friendly faces and alter egos of Edwin Meese III and Deaver.

With all the talent available in Washington, President Reagan called Clark from his California Supreme Court seat when he needed help at the State Department.

Anytime there was trouble, Reagan looked inward for a trusted confidante. But soon that no longer will be possible. Clark is returning to California. Meese has been nominated again for attorney general because another old California friend, William French Smith, wants to go home. And now Deaver has announced his departure from the White House this spring.

The Washington grapevines are buzzing with speculation about possible successors, but in fact there will be no replacing Clark, Meese and Deaver at the White House. They have shared a special relationship with Ronald and Nancy Reagan that cannot be duplicated.

Over the years they have created and nurtured the protective atmosphere from which Reagan has governed. They have exercised power not so much through intellect or strong commitment to specific issues as through a symbiotic ability to know Reagan's thoughts, to translate those thoughts into public image and action, and to isolate Reagan from political hazard. Whenever the cry went out to "let Reagan be Reagan," these are the men who knew how to let Reagan be Reagan.

White House factions aside, these men were Reagan loyalists above all. They achieved success not so much through their own ideas but by building on Reagan's own political instincts. The major ideology that interested them was Reaganism.

Some White House-watchers fear that their departure will leave the Administration directionless and in disarray. There is the possibility, however, that the changes will create the opportunity for new ideas and energy and a more publicly vigorous and involved President. The outcome depends on the actions of just one person--Ronald Reagan, the man who so dislikes dealing with personnel matters.

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