Leave It to Deaver

When John McCain was gearing up to run for President in 1999, his campaign spokesman Howard Opinsky cornered me at a reception one evening and informed me that, the Arizonan’s break with conservatives on some issues notwithstanding, I might be pleased to know a “number of Reagan people are on board with John.”

“Oh, really?” I replied, “Such as. . . ?”

“Mike Deaver,” Opinsky replied without hesitation, and then went on to name Ken Duberstein, Reagan’s last White House chief of staff and a onetime staffer to the late liberal Sen. Jacob Javits (R.-NY), and of whom it was said by conservatives “Reagan got him as top aide when he couldn’t get [obnoxiously liberal Sen. Lowell] Weicker [R.-CT.].”

As Opinsky got to Colin Powell, who was Reagan’s last national security adviser and another figure not trusted by conservatives, I was still reeling from the first name he had given me. Mike Deaver!!! Poor John McCain and poor Howard, I thought. Mike’s endorsement was not exactly going to help with HUMAN EVENTS readers, who felt that the deputy chief of staff in Reagan’s White House, more often than not, thwarted conservatives in policy and personnel.

That was my first thought upon hearing that Deaver had passed away yesterday at age 69 following a months-long battle with pancreatic cancer. The last time we had been together was October 13th, when we both attended a book-signing party for Jim Baker, who was the second member of the so-called White House “troika” that so successfully managed things for Reagan in his first term. (Baker and Deaver, many conservatives always believed, undermined conservatives, whose interested were championed by the third of the Reagan White House counselors, Ed Meese). As it was the previous time we were together — at a black-tie ball for charity, when Mike was gracious upon meeting my wife-to-be — the former Reagan mainstay in Sacramento and Washington almost certainly recalled HUMAN EVENTS’ criticisms of him, but never said a thing that could be considered unkind or ungentlemanly.

Deaver’s services to his fellow Californian went back to Reagan’s first term as governor in the late 1960’s. William P. Clark, Reagan’s first chief of staff as governor and later his National Security Advisor and Secretary of the Interior, recalled to me how he first recruited the young (28) Deaver to work on the gubernatorial staff. Deaver had actually worked on the gubernatorial campaign of Reagan’s more moderate primary opponent, former San Francisco Mayor George Christopher, and had not worked on Reagan’s winning general election race but rather on GOP campaigns for the state legislature and Congress. In Clark’s words, “Mike was very pragmatic, more so than Gov. Reagan or me.” But he also said that Deaver “did a great job and was very loyal to the governor.” When Clark moved on to the state Supreme Court in 1968, his successor as Gov. Reagan’s top aide, Ed Meese, kept Deaver in the same staff job for six more years.

Clark also reminded me of a relatively forgotten fact about Deaver, with whom he spoke days before his death: that in 1973, Deaver took a leave from Gov. Reagan’s office to manage the campaign for Proposition One, on the California ballot in 1973, the governor’s inventive proposal to cap state taxes and hold the line on spending. As the Watergate political drama unfolded, anything remotely Republican was losing and Propostion One was no exception. But it would return, in effect, five years later as Proposition 13: the ceiling on property taxes that was resoundingly enacted and is the law of the land in the Golden State to this day.

His preoccupation with image rather than substance, more often than not, worked against conservatives around President Reagan. Recalling Deaver’s rise as an aide in Reagan’s gubernatorial office, to his role in his eventual winning race for the presidency in 1980, and in the White House, the late Reaganite Lyn Nofziger wrote in his autobiography: “[A] special, almost mother-son relationship had developed between Nancy [Reagan] and Deaver and she would not have settled for anyone else…He served them well in the early years, less well when he attempted to manipulate them for his own purposes. This is not unique in politics or government or, for that matter, anywhere else. Jim Baker, Reagan’s first presidential chief of staff at it, is a master at it.”

Don Regan, Secretary of the Treasury in Reagan’s first term and chief of staff through part of his second, strongly seconded Nofziger’s view of Deaver as a “style man” and not an “issues man.” In his memoirs, Regan wrote of Deaver: “ We were, moreover, interested in different subjects. On the occasions when Deaver had sat in on Presidential meetings that involved economic issues, I had been struck by his easy manner with the President and by his evident boredom with issues. When fiscal and monetary policy were discussed, Deaver’s eyes glazed over.”

Recalling Regan’s ouster from the top job in the White House — generally thought to be the work of Nancy Reagan — Nofziger told a PBS interviewer that he had advised the then Treasury Secretary upon taking the chief of staff’s job: “You need a Mike Deaver,” and went on to explain that the colleague with whom he had served and clashed in Sacramento and Washington was nonetheless desperately needed, for both political skills and dealing with the First Lady. Bill Clark agreed, reminding me that back in the gubernatorial days, “Nancy required a lot more attention than I could give her, so I gave Mike the Nancy account.”

Without “a Deaver,” Nofziger concluded, Regan was doomed.

Yes, one needs a Mike Deaver, particularly if one is president. Sure, he was not very interested in policy but , in Don Regan’s words, “There was, of course, no reason for him to be interested in the substance of policy. His job was to sell the product once it was invented and ready to be marketed. Deaver was in charge of the Reagans’ public image, and judging by the results he had achieved, he deserved his reputation.”

Indeed, he did. Although neither holds the power in George W. Bush’s White House that Deaver did in Reagan’s, Dan Bartlett did and Ed Gillespie now does perform roughly the same function for the 43rd President as the man who died this weekend did for the 40th President. I daresay that, given George W. Bush’s current public image and approval ratings, neither Bartlett nor Gillespie holds a candle to the man Time once dubbed the “vicar of visuals.” And just as Republicans almost always say these days, “The party needs another Ronald Reagan,” it would not be a reach to say it needs a Mike Deaver, as well.