Reagan Advisor Michael Deaver Dead at 69

Former presidential aide Michael K. Deaver speaks to reporters outside his office in Washington after he was indicted on perjury charges in this March 19, 1987 photo. (AP Photo/J.Scott Applewhite)[Click image for details ] AP Photo/J.Scott Applewhite

Michael K. Deaver, one of Ronald Reagan's closest White House advisers and the director of the president's picturesque and symbolic public appearances, died Saturday. He was 69.

Deaver, who had pancreatic cancer, died at his home in Bethesda, Maryland, according to a statement from the Deaver family that was issued by Edelman, the public relations firm he served as vice chairman.

Deaver served as deputy chief of staff in the Reagan White House, who along with James Baker and Ed Meese comprised the "troika" that advised the president and implemented his policies.

But Deaver was the image guru — a former public relations man who helped Reagan use the former actor's movie star skills to make his points and win the support of the American people.

"In many ways, Michael Deaver was the 'man behind the curtain,'" said CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller.

"When it came to conveying Mr. Reagan's message, the cry at the White House was, 'Leave it to Deaver,'" Knoller said. "He chose the settings and staging, and operated the bells and whistles, that helped President Reagan earn his reputation of being 'the Great Communicator' — but he couldn't have done it without Michael Deaver."

Deaver was celebrated and scorned as an expert at media manipulation for focusing on how the president looked as much as on what the president said. Reagan's chief choreographer for public events, Deaver protected the commander in chief's image and enhanced it with a flair for choosing just the right settings, poses and camera angles.

"I've always said the only thing I did is light him well," Deaver told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. "My job was filling up the space around the head. I didn't make Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan made me."

Deaver's own image suffered a setback in 1987. He was convicted on three of five counts of perjury stemming from statements to a congressional subcommittee and a federal grand jury investigating his lobbying activities with administration officials.

Deaver blamed alcoholism for lapses in memory and judgment. He was sentenced to three years' probation and fined $100,000 as well as ordered to perform 1,500 hours of public service.

When the subject of a pardon surfaced in Reagan's final days in office in 1989, the president noted that Deaver had indicated he would not accept one, according to Reagan's diary.

Deaver's family said in the statement Saturday that he fought his cancer "with the courage, grace and good spirit that he carried throughout his life. ... In the end, he stood as the model of a man who not only loved life, but lived life right, one day at a time."

Deaver brought a public relations background and a long association with Reagan to his work as White House deputy chief of staff from 1981-1985.

He was concerned more with Reagan's image than his policies. He also was responsible for the president's schedule and security and served as a liaison for any family matters.

To exert as much control as possible, Deaver steered the president away from reporters when he could, instead arranging Reagan in poses and settings that conveyed visually the message of the moment. Presidential news conferences were a rarity, which suited an actor-turned-politician who was at his best when using a script.

Deaver's greatest skill "was in arranging what were known as good visuals — televised events or scenes that would leave a powerful symbolic image in people's minds," former first lady Nancy Reagan recalled in her memoir, "My Turn."

One example was Reagan's visit to the beaches of Normandy, in France, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II. Deaver arranged for Reagan to appear on a cliff overlooking the English Channel and address D-Day veterans, which yielded dramatic video and still images of the president.

Mistakes could be costly, though.

Deaver chose a German military cemetery near Bitburg for Reagan to lay a wreath while on a visit. To the president's embarrassment, the cemetery turned out to contain the graves of 49 members of Adolf Hitler's elite SS troops. Reagan refused to drop the appearance from his schedule in spite of withering criticism.

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.

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