Mike Deaver, Reagan Image Maker, Dies at 69

Mike Deaver has died.

Michael K. Deaver, 69, the media maestro who shaped President Ronald Reagan’s public image for 20 years, transforming American politics with his powerful gift for image-making, died of pancreatic cancer yesterday at his home in Bethesda.

As the White House deputy chief of staff during the first term of the Reagan presidency, Deaver orchestrated Reagan’s every public appearance, staging announcements with an eye for television and news cameras. From a West Wing office adjacent to the Oval Office, Deaver did more than anyone before him to package and control the presidential image.

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A close friend of both President Reagan and his wife since their days in the California governor’s mansion, Deaver introduced the “photo op,” which positioned the former actor in visually irresistible locations where troublesome reporters’ questions could not intrude: atop the Great Wall of China, on the beach at Normandy for the 40th anniversary of D-Day or in front of a construction site as the president announced the latest government report on housing starts.

“I’ve always said the only thing I did is light him well,” he said. “My job was filling up the space around the head. I didn’t make Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan made me.”

Deaver once even saved the future president’s life. On a campaign plane in 1976, Reagan began choking on a peanut. Deaver wrapped his arms around the candidate from behind and drove his fists inward and upward below his diaphragm. On the second try, the nut flew out.

Ever protective of the president, Deaver limited access to Reagan in a way unprecedented in the modern presidency. “The more you expose yourself, the more you expose yourself to trivialization,” he told the New York Times in 1993. “And if things start not working, people are going to say, ‘Get off your rear, quit talking and do something about it.’ “

For both good and ill, presidential have, ever since, gone through extraordinary lengths to control access to their boss in an attempt to shape their public image. None have done it better than Deaver. Then again, none of them have had Ronald Reagan to work with.

Deaver apparently took his own advice, too. Adam Clymer:

Less well known was that he was “one of the people who would speak up to Reagan,” said Lou Cannon, Reagan’s biographer. Richard Wirthlin, Reagan’s pollster, agreed, saying, “Over the years, Reagan knew that Mike wouldn’t counter him unless it was very important.” That gave Mr. Deaver’s advice special weight, Mr. Wirthlin said.

Mike Krempasky, Deaver’s colleague at Edelman, offers a personal tribute.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Anderson says:

    Ever protective of the president, Deaver limited access to Reagan in a way unprecedented in the modern presidency.

    I.e., kept the voters from seeing how Reagan’s mind really functioned.

    Deaver was a good fellow, but I deplore his contribution to the decline of our democracy (as chronicled in Lou Cannon’s biography of Reagan, for ex).