The last thought I remember having before going to sleep last night was, “I wonder how Mike Deaver is doing. I’ll have to e-mail (a mutual friend) to see if she knows what’s up.” This morning, the first news story I saw on the internet was Mike’s obituary.
I was aware of his diagnosis: Pancreatic cancer. I first heard he had it about a year ago. There was nothing in the news about it, but Deaver’s name was in the press for other reasons, suggesting he was working through his illness. I hoped he would be one of the fortunate few who overcome what is almost always a fatal cancer. That he survived a year is a testament to the heart of a fundamentally peaceful and kind man.
You reading this know Michael Deaver as an historical personage; Ronald Reagan’s “media maestro,” a member of the “troika” guiding Reagan through his first term. If you dislike Reagan, you might blame Deaver for using his masterful PR skills to sell him voters who were otherwise eager to reward Jimmy Carter with a second term or Walter Mondale with a first. If you like Reagan, you might have mixed feelings about Deaver, too. He was often suspected by the hard right of being something less than a true-blue conservative.
I don’t know about any of that. As brilliant as Deaver was, I think his reputation as a media hypnotist was overblown by political pundits struggling to figure out how this “amiable dunce” Reagan got elected. “Must’ve been those American flags Deaver put behind him.” And if Deaver wasn’t a consistent right-winger, that reflects the fact that Reagan wasn’t a consistent right-winger either. Deaver was a true PR man, and the essential skill that PR people need to have is a clear picture of who or what it is they are selling. Deaver understood Reagan the man, and that’s what enabled him to create Reagan’s image as a candidate.
I got to know Deaver many years after his White House tenure; and after his congressional testimony concerning his lobbying career got him convicted of perjury and almost destroyed his life. He was a high official for Edelman Public Relations (now just “Edelman“), co-directing the firm’s Washington, D.C. office alongside Democratic operative Leslie Dach. The two of them and the teams they built helped make Edelman what it is today. From what I can gather, Deaver continued his work at Edelman until his death.
At Edelman, I was privileged to work with him on many occasions, and to be able to meet with him during one of his many trips to Los Angeles. I pitched business with him, joined him at client meetings, and came to know him as a colleague. He was highly in demand, but never seemed like it. PR people often will excuse their own rudeness by pointing to how much pressure they’re under, how many clients they have. Not Deaver. Mike was unfailingly polite, considerate and thoughtful. He gave great advice — truly worth every penny a client paid for it. And he was a great storyteller, whose anecdotes about the Reagan years were always the perfect thing to say to sum up a client’s situation. In Deaver’s telling, Reagan came off as crafty and very down-to-earth, something of a small-town tourist in the glitzy worlds of movies and politics who found the clashing egos amusing but unimportant.
Deaver also helped me at two crisis points of my life — after the death of my wife Lori in 1999, and again after my indictment in 2005. In both instances, he was one of the first people to call me and offer help. I will never forget a lunch I had with Mike in ’99 at the Beverly Hills Hotel, in which he related his successful battle with alcoholism, and made the connection with my own recovery from the blow of suddenly becoming a widower. His words were deeply soothing and helpful. I came out of that lunch stronger than when I came in. (I should note, too, that I got incredible support from the entire firm, for which I am still very grateful.)
After the indictment, Deaver’s call helped me focus on the future, the fact that I would have a life and a career after this ordeal was over, whatever the outcome — because no matter what the government did to me, they couldn’t take away my talent, there would also be a need for someone of my abilities. I have held onto that reassuring thought for the past two and a half years. He also wrote a letter to the judge testifying to my character for use in the sentencing process. I was so deeply touched by that gesture of support.
It can be a very harsh world, but Mike was one of the people who made it all a little easier. That’s probably the real reason Reagan relied on him so much. In the polarized political culture that the past two decades have fostered, it would be nice to think there could be Republicans and Democrats out there like Deaver who were human beings first, and who knew human beings need to take care of each other.