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Michael K. Deaver: 1938 - 2007

Image guru set the stage for Reagan

August 19, 2007|Johanna Neuman and David Willman | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — 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."

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