BONN — Embroiling his beloved boss in an international controversy over a wreath-laying ceremony at Nazi graves was hardly the last hurrah that Michael K. Deaver had envisioned for himself as President Reagan's media maestro and most trusted aide.
"This certainly has been something I feel very badly about," he conceded. "I've always tried to protect the President and do what I thought was right for him, and I don't consider this, I mean . . . I have to take the responsibility for this."
On Saturday, Deaver was going over final plans for Reagan's visit to the Bitburg military cemetery--and counting the days until Friday, when the President returns to Andrews Air Force Base.
He then will step off Air Force One and out from under the President's wing, ending 18 1/2 years of nearly unbroken service dating to the time when Reagan became governor of California.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I'm going to miss it--the excitement, the emotional highs and lows, because there's nothing like it anyplace in the world," Deaver said, referring to the White House, where he works only a few steps from the Oval Office, and to his influential role as the senior adviser who basically decides what the President does with his time.
"But I have family responsibilities, and I just think it's time for me to make a break," the 47-year-old aide continued. "I hate to talk about poor-mouthing and money because everybody thinks that's all I do, but there's some truth to that."
Deaver, who comes from middle-class roots in California's Central Valley, has been earning around $70,000 a year at the White House. In January, he announced his intention to resign and enter public relations, triggering a bidding war for his talents and connections that resulted in one firm's offer to pay him $1 million annually.
Deaver then concluded that if he is worth that much to somebody else he should start his own consulting company, which will specialize in international trade.
Although he has never had any formal public relations training, Deaver earned a reputation at the White House as a superb orchestrator of "media events," particularly the "photo opportunity"--exhibiting an instinctive knack for choosing just the right event, the perfect setting, the appealing backdrop to present Reagan at his best.
"Deaver's strength is that he knows Reagan. He knows how Ronald Reagan will play," White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Saturday. "He knows how to convey the real Ronald Reagan, and that's important for presidential leadership."
But that all broke down at Bitburg, an unimposing cemetery on a modest hill overlooking a small town and containing the graves of roughly 3,000 German World War I and World War II soldiers, including 49 members of Adolf Hitler's Waffen SS.
It is the presence of the SS dead--conjuring up in one's mind the very essence of evil, a word that Reagan intends to use freely today--that Jewish leaders, Holocaust victims and American veterans seized upon in leading a cry of outrage against the President's plan to join West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in laying a wreath at Bitburg.
"'I never even thought of SS," Deaver recalled, reporting on his state of mind when he first went to the cemetery in February while surveying possible event sites for Reagan's European trip.
But Deaver said he did ask Kohl, who had proposed the cemetery visit, to "'check to be sure no one's there who's going to be embarrassing. And the word came back from the German government that everything was fine."
Kohl recently has said he also suggested that Reagan visit a Nazi concentration camp and pay homage to the Jewish victims of Hitlerism. There are U.S. officials who agree with that account. But Deaver said that "it's all very confusing."
About the time last winter that Reagan was deciding not to visit a concentration camp and agreeing to go to a cemetery, Deaver was being released from a hospital after having suffered an acute kidney infection. He was trying also to focus on his own future.
The upshot was that when Reagan insisted that he did not want to visit a concentration camp, contending that it could embarrass the West German government, offend the German people and be personally depressing, there was no one--such as his longtime confidant Mike Deaver--who forcefully argued that if he was going to Bitburg he also had better go to a death camp.
It is generally agreed that Reagan had a second chance later to silence the outcry immediately after it echoed across America. He could have scrubbed the cemetery visit as soon as SS graves were discovered there by television crews. Instead, the President then added a same-day visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Deaver staunchly defends the President's decision to fulfill his commitment to Kohl.
"I mean, we won! The war's over," he said. "And they certainly have not tried to bury their past and have publicly recognized the atrocities and the horrors of Nazism."