Michael K. Deaver, a close adviser to Ronald Reagan who directed the president’s picturesque and symbolic public appearances, died Saturday. He was 69.
Deaver, who had pancreatic cancer, died at his home in Bethesda, Md., according to a statement from the Deaver family that was issued by Edelman, the public relations firm he served as vice chairman.
Deaver was celebrated and scorned as an expert at media manipulation for focusing on how the president looked as much as what the president said. Reagan’s chief choreographer for public events, Deaver protected the commander in chief’s image and enhanced it with a flair for choosing just the right settings, poses and camera angles.
“I’ve always said the only thing I did is light him well,” Deaver told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “My job was filling up the space around the head. I didn’t make Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan made me.”
Deaver’s own image suffered a setback in 1987. He was convicted on three of five counts of perjury stemming from statements to a congressional subcommittee and a federal grand jury investigating his lobbying activities with administration officials.
Deaver blamed alcoholism for lapses in memory and judgment. He was sentenced to three years’ probation and fined $100,000 as well as ordered to perform 1,500 hours of public service.
When the subject of a pardon surfaced in Reagan’s final days in office in 1989, the president noted that Deaver had indicated he would not accept one, according to Reagan’s diary.
Deaver’s family said in the statement Saturday that he fought his cancer “with the courage, grace and good spirit that he carried throughout his life. ... In the end, he stood as the model of a man who not only loved life, but lived life right, one day at a time.”
‘Closest of friends’
Former first lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement that Deaver “was the closest of friends to both Ronnie and me in many ways, and he was like a son to Ronnie.” She added, “We met great challenges together. ... I will miss Mike terribly.”
Deaver brought a public relations background and a long association with Reagan to his work as White House deputy chief of staff from 1981-1985. He and top Reagan advisers Edwin Meese III and James A. Baker III were known as “the troika” that, in effect, managed the presidency.
Deaver, however, was concerned more with Reagan’s image than his policies. He also was responsible for the president’s schedule and security and served as a liaison for any family matters.
To exert as much control as possible, Deaver steered the president away from reporters when he could, instead arranging Reagan in poses and settings that conveyed visually the message of the moment. Presidential news conferences were a rarity, which suited an actor-turned-politician who was at his best when using a script.
Meese, in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from his Virginia home, said Deaver “had great imagination, great innovation.”
“Public relations was his obvious forte, and he did a very good job of it throughout his life,” Meese said. “Mike had an amazing way to understand how people would respond and he had a great way of helping Ronald Reagan get his message across to the public.”
A spokesman for President Bush, Gordon Johndroe, said Deaver “knew the importance in our democracy of communicating with the American people and he will be missed.”
Deaver’s greatest skill “was in arranging what were known as good visuals — televised events or scenes that would leave a powerful symbolic image in people’s minds,” Nancy Reagan recalled in her memoir, “My Turn.”
One example was Reagan’s visit to the beaches of Normandy, in France, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II. Deaver arranged for Reagan to appear on a cliff overlooking the English Channel and address D-Day veterans, which yielded dramatic video and still images of the president.
Mistakes could be costly, though.
Deaver chose a German military cemetery near Bitburg for Reagan to lay a wreath while on a visit. To the president’s embarrassment, the cemetery turned out to contain the graves of 49 members of Adolf Hitler’s elite SS troops. Reagan refused to drop the appearance from his schedule in spite of withering criticism.
‘A master of political theater’
David Gergen, White House communications director for Reagan, had an office next door to Deaver’s. “He was a master of political theater in the best sense of that phrase. Some people denigrate political theater, but in truth it’s been essential to presidents,” Gergen said in a telephone interview.
“He brought an imagination and an eye and a sense of the country to the presidency,” he said. “The choreography of the president is more important than some people think.”
“Mike did not think it was all packaging. You had to stage it right, but you had to have the philosophy, the set of ideas to make it all work,” said Gergen, who now teaches at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Deaver was born April 11, 1938, in Bakersfield, Calif., the son of a Shell Oil Co. distributor. He played piano in bars while studying political science at San Jose State College. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1960.
He worked for IBM and served in the Air Force. Later, it was Deaver’s interest in politics that led him to the Santa Clara County Republican Party. Hired as its executive director, he soon was organizing political campaigns for GOP candidates.
Deaver’s work on behalf of the Reagans began when he joined the gubernatorial staff in Sacramento following Reagan’s election in 1966. He became a detail-oriented aide focused on helping the governor run a smooth day-to-day schedule.
Deaver formed his own company after Reagan left the state capital — the former governor and presidential aspirant was his chief client — and then joined Reagan in Washington after his 1980 election.
Among the president’s advisers, Deaver was the closest to Nancy Reagan. But their relationship suffered after his 1987 convictions and criticism that he was “cashing in” on his ties to the White House. “Somewhere along the line in Washington Mike Deaver went off track and caught a bad case of Potomac fever,” she wrote.
Time eventually repaired their friendship, and for years Deaver spoke with the former first lady nearly every week.
When Deaver left the White House in 1985 he formed his own consulting firm. In 1992 he joined the public relations firm Edelman. He wrote four books touching on his White House years and his relationship with the Reagans.
Survivors include his wife, Carolyn, whom he met while they were staffers for the Reagan administration in Sacramento. They had two children, Amanda Deaver of Washington and Blair Deaver of Bend, Ore.