Sunday, August 19, 2007

Memories Of Michael Deaver, A Loyal Aide

Like Earl Warren, Michael Deaver grew up in Bakersfield in a lower middle class family, and like the great Chief Justice, he never lost his love for California. Warren, who like Deaver lived his last years in Washington, D.C., cited a Kipling poem about the Golden State on his death bed. Deaver, dying of pancreatic cancer, took a last trip to Lake Tahoe just before he died.

Both men had a gift for providing great visuals. Deaver conceived the pictures of President Reagan in Berlin, unforgettably saying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," and speaking on top of Pointe-du-Hoc in Normandy, commemorating the brave Army rangers who scaled those heights against Nazi defenders on D-Day. Warren, for his part, appeared with Pat Brown in a memorable picture showing the two duck-hunting in 1962, a picture which helped Brown overcome the challenge of old Warren enemy Richard Nixon in that year's gubernatorial election.

Of course, Deaver could not compare to Warren in stature. But, still, as the loyal aide who worked assiduously to make Reagan a successful governor of California and then President of the United States, and then gave President Reagan the benefit of his candid opinions, Deaver was an important figure.

We cannot underestimate the value of loyal aides who put the careers of the leaders they work for above everything else. Without Louis Howe, Franklin D. Roosevelt might never have been President. Without his brother, Robert, John Kennedy might never have made it to the White House either. And without Deaver, Reagan would not have been the subtle, skillful President he turned out to be. Often, Deaver's advice to Reagan was more moderate than other aides, such as Ed Meese, gave him. And, Reagan, to his credit, knew when to listen.

It was ultimately a more valuable relationship than Jimmy Carter had with his two closest longtime aides, Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan, when he got to the White House. Powell and Jordan were too limited. Deaver grew with his responsibilities and was a more savvy figure.

Deaver, who died Saturday at the age of 69, was also famously close to Nancy Reagan, the President's frequently underestimated wife. On Deaver's death, Mrs. Reagan, quoted in Johanna Neuman and David Willman's lengthy obituary in today's L.A. Times, reflected on their relationship: "Mike was the closest of friends to both Ronnie and me in many ways, and he was like a son to Ronnie. 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."

The strange thing is, so will some of the reporters who knew Deaver over the years. I happened to be talking yesterday afternoon over the phone to Howell Raines, former Washington bureau chief and executive editor of the New York Times. He expressed his respect for Deaver and remarked that his death had come as bad news. As a political writer for the L.A. Times, I too had respect for Deaver, and, at a time when I occasionally did "insider" stories quoting politicians and their aides anonymously as to how political races were going, Deaver -- like Jesse Unruh, Ken Cory and former GOP California state chairman Paul Haerle -- was one of my favorite sources. The sources gave me their honest opinions, and they weren't as partisan as one might expect.

I notice that Lou Cannon, the former Washington Post political reporter and Reagan biographer, is quoted in the Neuman-Willman obituary today assessing Deaver as "curiously an underrated figure. Lots of people can do backdrops. Deaver was one of the few advisors who Ronald Reagan emotionally cared about."

That feeling obviously survived some of Deaver's shortcomings, his periodic alcoholism and his legal troubles after he left the White House as an overweening Washington lobbyist.

The underlying consideration here was that Deaver, no matter what, was always loyal, and Reagan knew it.

Deaver remarked modestly in a 2001 L.A. Times interview that all he had done was arrange photo ops. "I didn't make Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan made me."

That is not quite accurate. Without Michael Deaver, Reagan would not have been the successful governor and President he was.

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