Light and shadow
The common thread of all the disciplines in our college is
that we are story tellers. We tell good stories, funny stories,
horror stories—and in every sense of those words. What
sets our disciplines apart is that we tell those stories from
different perspectives. Journalism and public relations come
to mind. Each is an honorable profession—would we teach
anything other?—though they do not always find common
One of the more artful practitioners of political PR that
I met during nine years as CNN’s Senior White House correspondent
was Michael K. Deaver.
If Ronald Reagan was the “great communicator,” Mike
Deaver must have been the “great illuminator.” In
fitting understatement, Deaver once told an interviewer: “I’ve
always said the only thing I did is light him well,”
When Deaver died of cancer Saturday at age 69, he was vice
chairman of Edelman International, a global public relations
firm. But his days in the spotlight, so to speak, were in the
Reagan White House.
Deaver was deputy chief of staff and so much more. He was
Reagan’s imagemeister and First Lady Nancy Reagan’s
confidante. By her description, Deaver was “like a son
to Ronnie.” He was also the buffer between the First
Lady and the Reagan campaign and staff aides who tiptoed around
or blundered into differences with her.
was in on Mrs. Reagan’s use of an astrologer to plot
a safe course for her husband. But that’s another story
and too long to tell here. It suffices to convey that Deaver,
of all the Reagan aides, was closest to the couple and most
entrusted with projecting and protecting their images.
Leslie Stahl, then the CBS White House correspondent, tells
the often repeated story of airing what she considered a scathing
report about budget cuts made by the Reagan administration.
Stahl came to the White House the next morning expecting to
be berated by White House officials. Instead, she was greeted
with compliments for her report.
Finally, Stahl confronted a Deaver deputy who shed light on
her bewilderment. “No one heard what you had to say in
that piece,” Stahl was told. “They just saw the
pictures.” And in those pictures, Reagan was glowing.
In this regard, the Reagan team was cocky, but good. Spokesman
Larry Speakes kept a framed saying on the wall of his office
that said: “Don’t tell us how to stage the news.
We won’t tell you how to report it.”
I don’t buy the notion, as Stahl put it, that “pictures
drowned out my words.” At least, not as an absolute.
Perhaps I’m just an old radio guy, but the television
in my office is not in my line of sight. I rarely just watch.
I listen for audio cues to catch my attention.
And I’d never tell any of our students that words don’t
matter. In fact, I admonish our broadcast students that the
audio—both words and ambient sound—are not afterthoughts
to their reports. For that matter, too much TV news video is
little more than wallpaper to accompany the sound. We need
to do something about that, too. Writing to pictures, not writing
over pictures, is a start.
But the way Mike Deaver set the scene was masterful. The light
rising over the beach cliffs in Normandy caught the glint in
Reagan’s eye at a World War II commemoration. The Brandenburg
Gate was framed behind the president in Berlin when he declaimed, “Mr.
Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The balloons cascaded
from the rafters in just the right pattern to frame Reagan’s
buoyancy at Republican conventions.
was not always successful. The pictures of Reagan visiting
a military cemetery at Bitburg, Germany, haunted the White
House when it became apparent that Nazi SS troopers were among
the German soldiers buried there.
Deaver’s own photo on the cover of a 1986 issue of Time
presaged his downfall. Time’s headline: “Who’s
This Man Calling? Influence Peddling in Washington.”
Now Deaver has shaped one last scenario—a conundrum
for the dean of a college of mass communications that spans
the diverse, though related, disciplines of public relations
and journalism. This weekend we welcomed hundreds of new students
at our freshman convocation. And Mike, in absentia, and I were
recast in our old roles from White House days where a certain
tension between the press and the presidency was a democratic
As a PR guy, I suggested, Mike would have told our public
relations students to show their clients in the best possible
light. On the other hand, I hope I conveyed to the journalism
students that it is their responsibility not to be blinded
by the light.
Photos courtesy of edelman.com