“I don’t know anything about public relations,” Mike said. “What do you think you’ve been doing for the last seven years?” I replied. It was 1974, the last of Ronald Reagan’s eight years as Governor of California. We were both Assistants to the Governor, Mike as Director of Administration (scheduling, advance, security, political liaison); I was the new Director of Public Affairs (the various communications functions). For years, Mike had kept a sharp eye out for the settings in which Reagan would be appearing to make sure they were as effective as possible.
We had been talking about the need for an office and management plan for the soon-to-be Citizen Reagan. Mike said many post-gubernatorial speaking invitations had been coming in. A radio producer, Harry O’Connor, had proposed a program of daily conservative commentary; a newspaper syndicate wanted a column from Reagan. We began to develop a plan, with a pro forma budget and staffing. We presented it to the Reagans at their home one weekend that fall. They liked it. From that was born Deaver & Hannaford, Inc. which opened for business in Los Angeles shortly after Reagan left office in early January 1975. We managed his public program from then until his successful 1980 campaign for the presidency. Both of us had senior positions in the 1976 and 1980 campaigns.
It was in 1976 that Mike’s intuitive understanding of the importance of impressions in campaigning came to the fore. It was July in Kansas City, where Reagan was oh-so-close to winning the nomination. Mike arranged for a specialist from New York to light the corner of the Reagan suite where the candidate would be interviewed by many news people. Rarely did aides to any candidate think about lighting, flat or flattering. Mike did, and he did it right.
After the Reagan victory, I assumed I would stay out to run the company, but Mike wasn’t sure he wanted to go in to the new administration. After much thought and discussion, he said one day in late November, “I’ll go in, but only for a year.” That one year became four-and-a-half years.
As the new president’s deputy chief of staff, Mike had as his special province what might be called “presidential atmospherics.” Because of his close relationship with both Reagans, he had a well-developed sensitivity about what would work best for the new president in his public appearances.
He understood that a public official, to be successful, had to appeal to both the intellect and the emotions of the people he served. He would never have called himself an “issues” man, but he knew intuitively that sound content, presented in a setting that made a positive impression, could succeed.
Countless examples of Mike’s talent for “impressionism” presented themselves during his White House years. Examples: Reagan’s signing of his historic tax bill on the patio in front of his ranch house on a foggy morning in August 1981; the many Morning-in-America settings in 1984, especially the president’s deeply emotional tribute to “the boys of Pointe du Hoc” on the cliffs of Normandy at the occasion of the 40th anniversary of D-Day.
Not everything Mike planned went as intended. He was in charge of advancing the Reagan visit to a cemetery — Bitburg — in Germany in 1985. A combination of too much snow and too little time caused him and his team to fail to see that a number of Nazi S.S. troops were buried there. All hell broke loose. Mike took responsibility without flinching.
Nevertheless, when he left office early that summer his world looked very good. He opened his own company and began to pull in clients. Alas, he caught the Washington hubris virus. He was neither the first nor the last to do so. His normal caution left him temporarily as he talked openly of his success and ability to help clients get things done. He allowed himself to be photographed for the cover of Time. The long knives came out in the Democratically-controlled Congress. He was called before a Congressional committee, then a grand jury. Before long he was indicted and convicted of perjury. This brought a large fine and a requirement to perform 1,500 hours of community service.
Over the next twenty years he went way beyond that requirement. During his trial he admitted that he had succumbed to alcohol. He went to a treatment center and, after that, participated actively in Alcoholics Anonymous. He also became chairman of a Washington substance abuse treatment center where he counseled residents and often served them Christmas dinner.
Going through his ordeal, Mike learned humility and more than atoned for his mistakes. Also, his talent for the “atmospherics” of public communication never left him and he became a senior officer of a large public relations firm.
After he was diagnosed with cancer last fall, he sent periodic e-mail updates to a long list of friends and acquaintances. He was optimistic when he had reason to be, but always noted that he was taking things one day at a time. In his last e-mail, in early July, he talked warmly of the vacation he and his entire family were about to take at Fallen Leaf Lake, in the mountains above Lake Tahoe.
Last Saturday, after returning to Washington from that vacation, he died. He will long be remembered as the man who contributed much to a great president’s success.
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