Michael Deaver, who died this week, spent much of his career in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, managing the President's public image, from photo ops to his state funeral. Reagan biographer Edmund Morris discusses how Deaver influenced the way his boss was heard, seen, and remembered.
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BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Michael Deaver died this week. An aide to Ronald Reagan in his first term, Deaver is credited not only with enhancing the image of his boss but of reinventing the way U.S. Presidents engage with the media.
Edmund Morris is the author of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, and he joins us now to discuss Deaver's legacy. Edmund, welcome to the show. EDMUND MORRIS: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Ronald Reagan was famously the great communicator. How much of that communication is a debt owed to Michael Deaver? EDMUND MORRIS: About three percent. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] I wasn't expecting that answer. [LAUGHTER] EDMUND MORRIS: Ronald Reagan was a natural audio and video presence, and he'd been communicating in one form or another since 1933, when he first went into radio. So he knew how to time himself, he knew how to speak, he knew how to look, he knew how to move, but he did require a producer, and that's the function that Deaver brilliantly fulfilled. BOB GARFIELD: I want to play a clip of Michael Deaver speaking to us a few years back. [CLIP]: MICHAEL DEAVER: We worked on a 60-90 day strategy so that I knew pretty well for the next three or four weeks what the news story was going to be 80 percent of the time. But the people at CBS and NBC and NPR didn't know that. BOB GARFIELD: And you knew which days you wanted to deflect attention from the true story of the day and which day you wanted to invite attention. MICHAEL DEAVER: Of course. [END OF CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Did he really co-op the function of top editors and producers of TV? EDMUND MORRIS: Yes, I think he did. I was astonished during my years in the White House to see how abject the press was, how they would take anything given to them, particularly if it was well produced. I remember going to the Geneva Summit and seeing how the press just sat in an enormous room waiting to be given leads on what the night's story would be.
So Mike sensed this laziness on the part of the press and gave them prepackaged stories. His message got through and the President looked terrific and the media cooperated. BOB GARFIELD: What was his secret? EDMUND MORRIS: I think he just had an instinct for what was important and what was simple. He understood, for example, that a country brought up on television and on the screen is more impressed by the way things look than the way things sound.
I'm sure you're aware of the famous story of Reagan making a terrible political gaffe one day and being picked on by CBS News. But Deaver, when he was called by CBS News to alert him to the fact that this gaffe was going to be broadcast that night, watched it and said afterwards that he was delighted because the President looked so good. BOB GARFIELD: He was big on backgrounds, the physical backdrop behind whatever the President was actually saying with his lips. EDMUND MORRIS: Yes, that was the producer in him. He understood, for example, that Reagan would look terrific mounted on a promontory looking out over the English Channel when he went to celebrate the 40th anniversary of D-Day. He understood that Reagan needed to be seen in full body if possible, because his body was impressive.
And he understood the - well, the most classic example of his production values was the funeral, which he choreographed, climaxing with that sunset farewell on the Pacific Coast, the sun sinking into the sea at precisely the moment that Deaver wanted it to sink. BOB GARFIELD: And it was an extraordinary achievement if for no other reason than the fact that Reagan, who was a controversial President, to say the least, saw his passing noted with almost no resurrection of the scandals of his presidency. EDMUND MORRIS: Yes, I think we can probably ascribe a lot to that to Deaver in the sense that the sentimental legend which grew up after Reagan's departure became almost overwhelming. And we forget now that the presidency did have its dark moments, particularly the Bitburg episode of 1985, which is almost forgotten now but which I've always felt was an extremely poignant moral drama. BOB GARFIELD: This was the President visiting a cemetery in Germany where members of the SS were buried, which triggered an enormous controversy. EDMUND MORRIS: Through Deaver's rather sloppy advance work, it was not noticed that the graves, as you say, in this particular military cemetery were polluted by the presence of SS. Deaver took the fall for that, but Reagan very characteristically insisted on going through with this wildly controversial appearance. BOB GARFIELD: The history of the 20th century is a history of Presidential advisors with a power perhaps disproportionate to their actual job titles. You know, I'm thinking of H.R. Haldeman with Nixon, and then Karl Rove with George Bush, Robert Kennedy with John F. Kennedy. How about Deaver? Was he a powerbroker, or was he just an image maker? EDMUND MORRIS: Oh, he was the most powerful man in the White House during the first term. James Baker was nominated the Chief of Staff, but because Deaver had this intimate, almost son-like, filial relationship with Nancy, he was the one who had the closest access to the Reagans.
Through his work with her, he controlled the President's schedule and also controlled the sort of people that the President got to see. BOB GARFIELD: Michael Deaver was the father of the presidential photo-op, and I guess his legacy is the triumph in presidential politics of image over substance. Do you think that's a legacy of which he would have been proud? EDMUND MORRIS: Yes, and rightly so, too. But we must remember that there was substance there. Reagan was not an image. He was an extremely substantial and important president. And he happened to be dramatically gifted, and that's why Deaver was so good at choreographing his theatrical appearances.
If future presidential aides try to treat their presidents the same way as Deaver did to Ronald Reagan, they're going to have to be sure that the president is capable of performing in the way the producer needs. BOB GARFIELD: Edmund Morris, thank you so much. EDMUND MORRIS: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Presidential historian Edmund Morris is the author of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. His short biography of Beethoven, titled Beethoven: the Universal Composer, was released last year. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
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