Michael Deaver, R.I.P.

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When reporters asked Michael Deaver to size up his role as President Reagan’s image-maker-in-chief, he invariably gave a variant of the following: “I didn’t make Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan made me.” This focus on Mr. Deaver as image-man, and his modest response, is refreshing and understandable given all the image-making successes. But it obscures the rest of his substantial legacy. Mike Deaver, who died over the weekend at 69, was a person who “speaks truth to power” (as well as to the readers of this newspaper as a contributor of commentaries and book reviews). Good public relations was just one of the strands of a remarkable life.

He excelled at getting the trappings, the flags and the natural settings and backdrops, just right for President Reagan’s public appearances. “The boys of Pointe du Hoc,” his speech on the bluff overlooking the Normandy invasion beaches on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, is perhaps the most famous of those. The Deaver images reflected the inherent patriotism of Americans and their sense of nationhood. The practical Washington lesson here is that strong ideals and sound policy can founder without the trappings of greatness to connect public affairs to the nation’s history and sensibilities. The larger lesson is that these images resonate because the underlying sensibilities, though often derided and lampooned, are in fact real. Their power to grip the emotions confirms it.

None of this tells much about Mike Deaver the adviser and confidant. He could deliver unwelcome necessary advice, and he did. One memorable example cited this week by presidential journalist Lou Cannon tells how Mr. Deaver counseled the firing of chief of staff Donald Regan in the wake of the Iran-Contra affair. The president, embittered, vowed that he never would do it. Mr. Deaver told him: “You stood up on the steps of the Capitol and took an oath to defend the Constitution and this office. You’ve got to think of the country first.” An angry president threw his pen so hard at the floor that it bounced off the carpet. Mike Deaver was right, of course. There were good reasons Ronald and Nancy took him into their inner circle and kept him there.

The man could turn a bad situation good with principled action. He turned his recovery from alcoholism into motivation for Clean and Sober Streets, a rehabilitation program which long enjoyed his patronage. He declined a presidential pardon after he was convicted of perjury following a highly charged partisan congressional lobbying investigation. He would not risk besmirching President Reagan’s office.

Farewell, Mike, and Godspeed.

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