Deaver left legacy affecting all presidents
By George E. Condon Jr.
August 24, 2007
It was sharply cold, as one would expect
just after dawn on a November day in Korea. But Michael
Deaver had left his coat unbuttoned, and his face was
flushed. “Would you just look at that? I thought it would
be powerful, but this is even better than I had thought.”
Fifty yards away was a deadly minefield; over his
shoulder was a radar outpost monitoring North Korean
troops. But there, only 20 feet away, President Ronald
Reagan sat on a folding chair as a choir of Korean orphans
sang “Jesus Loves Me.”
In what the day before had been the motor pool, a
simple wooden altar had been set up with a silver cross.
Behind the altar were parked two armored personnel
carriers, a 2 1/2-ton truck, a “gamma goat” amphibious
cargo vehicle and a Jeep. Completing the picture were more
than 200 troops of the 2nd Infantry Division.
Deaver was right. It was a powerful picture. And he
should have known. Before he left the White House two
years after this 1983 visit to Korea, Deaver had
choreographed, framed and staged some of the most striking
pictures in presidential history. The native Californian,
who died last week at age 69, raised the stakes for all
future occupants of the Oval Office and dragged the White
House into the visual age.
The obituaries that followed his death from pancreatic
cancer had all the basic facts right. His days as a
ditchdigger who paid his way through San Jose State by
playing the piano at night; his rise through the ranks of
staffers to then-Gov. Reagan in Sacramento; the bond
between him and Nancy Reagan; his influence in the Reagan
White House; and, finally, the hubris that overtook him
when he let his desire to make money overtake his good
sense, leading to a perjury conviction and fall from
But those stories stopped short of truly capturing
Deaver's impact on the presidency, an impact best seen on
days such as those in Korea. It was typical of Deaver that
he wanted to stand back to get a sense of the picture.
That was how he found himself in the press section
standing next to me, a relative newcomer to the White
Korea was just a warm-up for a nonstop barrage of
photographs that carried the president though the next
year's re-election campaign. Deaver not only came up with
the phrase “photo opportunity,” he made sure that each
photo was an opportunity to get across a message about the
president. When polls showed Americans didn't think he
cared about them, Deaver drove around Boston until he
found a local pub where locals – including the local
parish priest – were downing a pint or two. A quick call
to the Secret Service and Reagan was there, hoisting a
pint with the lads.
In a memorable trip to Europe, Deaver left little to
chance. The president was visiting the beaches of Normandy
for the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Everybody remembers the
emotional presidential tribute to “the boys of Pointe du
Hoc,” the Rangers who showed such bravery during the
assault. But there were two other Deaver touches that day
that deserve remembrance. One was the backdrop for the
Pointe du Hoc speech. At the very moment Reagan saluted
the gray-haired veterans standing there, the aircraft
carrier Eisenhower cruised into the television picture in
the background. It was perhaps the most powerful shot ever
arranged by Deaver and his trickiest choreography.
Not half an hour later there was perhaps his most
emotional moment. He had arranged to have Lisa Zanatta
Henn flown to France from San Francisco. The daughter of a
D-Day veteran, she had written an emotional letter to
Reagan. She sat there that morning as the president read
her letter. Soon almost everybody – the president, the
daughter, even the press – were fighting back tears.
Reagan could barely get out the last line of her letter:
“I'll never forget what you went through, Dad, nor will I
let anyone else forget.” Still struggling to control his
emotions, Reagan walked over to Henn to thank her.
There were other powerful moments – with the pope, on
the Great Wall of China, on Red Square. And there were
embarrassing moments, most notably his choice of a
cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, for a presidential visit.
There were SS soldiers buried there. But all Deaver could
see was the picture when he checked it out. Well before
the controversy broke, he was sitting at his desk near the
Oval Office talking to four of us reporters about the
upcoming trip. He mentioned the cemetery, saying, “It is
really lovely; really a nice picture.” In this instance,
his interest in the visual clouded his judgment.
But such mistakes were rare. He changed forever how
presidents presented themselves to the public. Oddly
enough, though, he didn't look back on the foreign trips
as his greatest accomplishments. To him, it was the much
more routine Oval Office address. Before Deaver,
presidents spoke in front of a drab curtain draped over
the window to block out the sun. He insisted it could be
done better. When others disagreed, he flew a lighting
expert in from New York, spent several thousand dollars
for backlighting and the window was visible for the next
It might not be a major legacy. But it's something. So
the next time President Bush – or his successor – speak in
the Oval Office, take a look at the window behind the
desk. You'll be able to see snow falling or leaves
blowing. For that, you have Mike Deaver to thank.
Washington, D.C., bureau chief for Copley News Service.