It has been a couple of weeks since Mike Deaver, longtime aide to Ronald Reagan — and a confidant of Nancy Reagan’s — died at the age of 69 of pancreatic cancer.
The major media responded with the typical run of obituaries, rightly recognizing one of the major figures from the Reagan era. The reaction from the conservative media, however, has been unusually quiet. Typically, the conservative press carries a bunch of tributes to top aides like Deaver who served the icon of the modern Republican party and conservative movement — but not this time.
In truth, this is not surprising. To be frank, conservatives did not like Mike Deaver, and most of the stalwart, red-white-and-blue Reaganites who worked for the administration harbored ill-will toward the man, often understandably. Over the years, many of these stalwarts have pulled me aside to share striking, sometimes scandalous off-the-record stories about Deaver, always lumping him in with the cabal of “moderates” and “pragmatists” that they believe — not always inaccurately — did a disservice to Reagan, before moving on to make George H. W. Bush a one-term president. I have contacted a number of them since Deaver’s departure, asking their opinion of the non-reaction. A typical response was this terse four-word e-mail. “Paul: Nobody liked him.”
The “nobody” referred to conservatives. The only one of the stalwarts who typically said nice things to me about Deaver was Judge William P. “Bill” Clark, the closest of all aides to Ronald Reagan, the man who brought Deaver into the public world by hiring him out of the mailroom to join him in running Governor Reagan’s staff in Sacramento. Two decades later, the media would report that it was Deaver, along with Jim Baker and others, who led a silent coup to remove Clark as Reagan’s hugely influential national security adviser. It is a sign of Clark’s boundless charity that he nonetheless spoke warmly of Deaver until his final days, and the two occasionally phoned one another to heal past wounds and to continue their ongoing joint service of preserving and promoting the legacy of Ronald Reagan. They spoke as recently as a week before Deaver’s death, with Deaver bravely assuring Clark that he was doing alright, a claim Clark sensed was not accurate.
Yet, despite the dislike of Deaver by conservatives, it must be acknowledged that he did a lot for the Reagan record, especially after the presidency. This was evident in two books he wrote on the Reagan years, Behind the Scenes and A Different Drummer: My Thirty Years with Ronald Reagan, the latter of which I strongly recommend as an outstanding account of the Reagan life and presidency, movingly narrated by Deaver’s gripping voice in a wonderful audio version.
The fact is that few spent as much time with Reagan as Deaver. As a result, Deaver had unique insights into Reagan, including on the president’s two most unappreciated intangibles: his confidence and his faith, which infused one another and combined to provide him with an unflappable serenity and security that carried him through the challenges of a historic life and presidency. Here are a few examples:
Deaver recalled a day in the summer of 1982 when he and his wife attended a lunch with Lillian Hellman, the playwright, and Joseph Alsop, an elder statesman among political columnists — two hard leftists. Hellman and Alsop engaged in a philosophical discussion about Marcel Proust, which Deaver said was too complicated for him to follow. When Deaver returned to the White House, he thought Reagan would be intrigued by the ruminations of these high-minded persons. “When I repeated [their exchange] to him,” said Deaver, “he was puzzled, almost angry. ‘Lillian Hellman!’ he said. ‘Dammit, she still thinks Joe Stalin is great!’”
Deaver noted that Nancy Reagan — he was really her right-hand man — would have enjoyed that lunch, listening to these very different voices and the give-and-take. But Reagan could care less, as Deaver explained: “As gregarious as her husband is, as much as he responds to good company, he doesn’t need or seek it. . . . I often wished he had been more willing to expose his private self to opposing opinions. That he did not, relates, I think, to his sense of security and not, as his critics may contend, to a narrowness of mind.”
Deaver was right on. Reagan’s dismissal of Hellman as a kooky dupe rather than a deep thinker was the kind of thing that drove leftist intellectuals nutty and prompted them to call him a dolt, but Reagan was unfazed. Deaver correctly understood that Reagan’s response reflected a contentedness in himself and his beliefs, not his simple-mindedness.
Deaver had witnessed such assuredness throughout his years with Reagan. He liked to point to an incident from the late 1960s when he was staying with Reagan at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, when Reagan, then governor of California, was in town to give a speech. The next morning Reagan called Deaver to suggest a walk. After ten minutes of strolling busy sidewalks, a middle-aged man approached with a beaming grin: “Hey, I know you from television, and you’re the best. You’re Ray Milland.” Despite his wide recognition, Reagan humbly smiled as the man thrust a pen and paper at him for an autograph, and, eager to please, unflinchingly signed it — “Ray Milland.” The autograph seeker left happy. Reagan moved on as if nothing had happened, walking and talking.
We would see this same Reagan demeanor as president. At the December 1987 Washington Summit, a reporter noticed a gaggle of media fawning over Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, while Reagan strangely appeared off alone with no one interested in him. Asked if he felt upstaged by Gorbachev, Reagan replied: “Good Lord, no. I’ve been on the same stage with Errol Flynn.”
Deaver recognized this trait in Reagan long before the wider public.
Then there is the matter of Reagan’s faith, on which Deaver likewise reported quite a bit. The story is now well known of Reagan’s recovering at the White House in April 1981 after the assassination attempt and feeling the need for spiritual sustenance; it was Good Friday, April 17, with Easter Sunday approaching, and he had an intense meeting with Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York. “The hand of God was upon you,” Cooke told Reagan. Reagan grew very serious. “I know,” he replied, before confiding to the Cardinal: “I have decided that whatever time I have left is for Him.” This was not merely a personal affirmation but a professional one: Reagan had now fully dedicated himself to a special spiritual mission — the defeat of atheistic Soviet Communism.
To the extent that we recognize this moment as a profound turning point, it is a credit to Mike Deaver: It was Deaver who telephoned Cooke, accurately sensing what his boss needed, and set this stage.
Four years later, in another telling incident underscoring Reagan’s religiousness, Deaver spoke of how Reagan excitedly called him after returning from the November 1985 Geneva Summit to come in for a debriefing. Deaver perceived a “festive tone” in Reagan that was “infectious.” Eagerly arriving within an hour, he asked the president what he had learned about the Soviet leader in their time together. One might guess Reagan would mention something about Gorbachev’s style or a policy matter like the general secretary’s palpable horror over SDI. Instead, Reagan responded with two simple, whispered words: “He believes.” A befuddled Deaver, knowing what Reagan meant and knowing that atheists didn’t run the USSR, followed: “Are you saying the general secretary of the Soviet Union believes in God?” Reagan responded: “I don’t know, Mike, but I honestly think he believes in a higher power.”
It would have surprised even his closest advisers to know that Reagan became most interested, almost obsessed, with the question of whether Mikhail Gorbachev was a Christian. Deaver alone saw that after Geneva and later made it public in one of his books.
Together, that faith and confidence forged the character that made Reagan such an unflappable, likeable figure, able to laugh off the latest mean-spirited affront from his vicious critics, whether he was yet again being called stupid and lazy or being blamed for homelessness and AIDS. The 40th president saw these attacks for what they were, and they somehow never bothered him. As Deaver summed up, “I have known few men more secure, as comfortable with themselves. . . . [N]obody threatened him. Nobody.”
Few knew or recorded that as well as Mike Deaver. Ironically, the dominant media always portrayed him as Reagan’s “image” maker — the stage-master of the easily manipulated puppet president, the man behind the curtain who made up the ex-actor to play his role to maximum performance — and according to Deaver’s detractors he was personally responsible for fostering this damaging perception. Yet, Deaver was careful to note that Reagan’s image was possible because Reagan was the real deal, the genuine article — and no dummy. The image wasn’t phony, as Deaver showed so well.
Now, today, with his death, I can’t help but recall the saddest moment in Deaver’s musings on Reagan: the day in 1997 when he paid a visit to the former president at his office in Los Angeles, where he was stricken with the early ravages of Alzheimer’s: Though Deaver had spent a memorable 30 years at Reagan’s side, he was not recognized by his longtime friend. Deaver sucked it up, stoically, while Reagan was cordial and polite. That was surely Deaver’s most difficult moment with Ronald Reagan.
Yes, Mike Deaver was certainly flawed, as his opponents are still eager to point out, and that explains their conspicuously quiet reaction to the news of his death. But his 30 years with Reagan — well spent and well recorded — are worth remembering. Ronald Reagan had an excuse for forgetting all those memories. We don’t.
– Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and professor of political science at Grove City College. His biography of Judge William P. Clark, The Judge, will be released in November by Ignatius Press.