San Diego Union Tribune

Deaver left legacy affecting all presidents

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 grace.

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 House beat.

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 Reagan address.

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.


 Condon is Washington, D.C., bureau chief for Copley News Service.