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Deaver's Downfall : From Bakersfield to the White House and Back Down--a Tale of Power, Greed, Loyalty

February 04, 1988|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Michael K. Deaver will never forget seeing his face on the cover of Time magazine.

As a top aide to President Reagan, he had dined with royalty while struggling to pay his rent and the kids' tuition. When he left the White House in May, 1985, he had taken a rocket ride to wealth by starting his own Washington-based consulting company. And at the height of his euphoria, he posed for Time in the back seat of a limousine with a car phone pressed to his ear, the Capitol dome visible out the window.

"I had been on a plane and flew into (New York's) Kennedy Airport," Deaver recalled, "and at the airport those magazine stands will take the news magazines and put 30 of them across the shelf behind a cashier. There were 30 pictures of me!

"That's very heady stuff for a kid from Bakersfield."

At the time, Deaver was too thrilled to be upset about the headline that also appeared on the cover: Influence Peddling in Washington.

'It Caught Me'

"This town, unlike any other town, has a very strange effect on people and it caught me," he said. "There's no question I got caught up in and enjoyed the fact that people were interested in printing what I said, were interested in taking a picture of me . . . that people were willing to pay me $200,000 and $300,000 for my advice."

Others saw it quite differently, pointing to the Time cover as a portrait of Washington greed and impropriety. Deaver, they said, was one more guy intent on cashing in big on government service, tossing ethics and ordinary good taste aside, a man who would do anything for money, a man who would sell his access to the President and wasn't even smart enough to be quiet about it. It was, they felt, the beginning of the end of Deaver's high-flying days.

Indeed, little more than 10 months later, Deaver was convicted of three counts of perjury stemming from a sweeping investigation of his business dealings. The lengthy probe uncovered no violations of law, but the intense public scrutiny and the charges of perjury permanently deflated his reputation and drove clients away by the score.

To some, it seemed the perfect comeuppance for a man who for five years wielded power at the highest levels of the White House and made plenty of enemies doing it--a man who had made no secret of his desire to make money after he left office. To others, it was a baffling paradox: How could the man renowned as Ronald Reagan's savvy one-man P.R. machine, have so badly misjudged reaction to the flaunting of his own success?

Total Dedication

Today, friends say it was Deaver's total dedication to the President and First Lady that caused his downfall, that he was so preoccupied with the Reagans that he ignored his own reputation, his own plans for the future until he had made too many political enemies and had led his family to make too many sacrifices.

Deaver himself believes his story is a tale of the dark side of Washington, of how the city seduces honorable people with its trappings of power and then punishes them when they succumb. He believes that the political enemies he made along the way conspired to make him a sacrificial lamb.

"I could have gone back to Los Angeles and done the same thing. In any other town, I would have been judged a great success," he said in an interview in his Northwest Washington home, which still houses some of the prizes of good living, a Bosendorfer grand piano made in Vienna, a Charles Remington copy of a man on a horse, a Mercedes 190 in the drive way. Noticeably absent are any pictures of the Reagans.

"I've gotten amused about the fact that everybody is so aghast that somebody wants to make money," he added. "I don't think I've ever heard anybody talk about Malcolm Forbes or Donald Trump as being greedy. But a guy who didn't have it and made it in six months got greedy."

The California Years

In his book "Behind the Scenes," to be published Feb. 15, Deaver wrote about his roots in Bakersfield, where he grew up one of three children of a Shell Oil distributor. He recalls being conscious of not having money, of feeling on the fringes of various worlds that intrigued him.

His parents "saved to buy appliances on a monthly plan," he wrote. "We Deavers had what we needed and not much else.

"I came to envy this about Ronald Reagan, not that he had money or was indifferent to it, but that he never seemed to give it much thought," Deaver wrote.

On Wednesdays, the young Deaver would go to a neighbor's to watch roller derby and wrestling matches because the Deaver house was the last on the block to get a television set.

"I can still remember my mother having one of those accordion folders in which you would put $10 for the laundry and $50 for food and $20 for the doctor."

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