By Michael K. Deaver, Forward by Nancy Reagan
Harper Collins, 2001, 290p
Reviewed by Daniel Brinkman -
Watching the honor guards and troops file by on Inauguration Day 1981, Reagan, hand on his heart, was tersely told by the General to his right that it is not appropriate for the president to return the salute unless his head is covered. Turning to his longtime aide and friend, Mike Deaver, Reagan said, “I feel very uncomfortable just standing here, not acknowledging their salutes.” Deaver, whispering into the new president’s ear said, “You can do whatever the hell you want – you’re the commander in chief!” Reagan’s eyes lit up. After a deliberate pause, Reagan raised his hand slowly to his forehead, and completed a salute with such perfection that many military men would blush with envy. “He did it with such zeal, I think he even made the attending general proud,” Deaver recalled.
There are many books on Reagan written by admirers and detractors alike. Unfortunately, it is often the case that when you finish them you fail to come away with a real sense of who he was as a person. Reagan had few close friends. Not that he longed for such companionship, he had Nancy, and that was all he needed.
Apart from Nancy, it is unlikely Reagan let his guard down with anyone else to the degree he did with Mike Deaver, author of A Different Drummer. Deaver met Reagan in the California governor’s office, where, being placed as deputy chief of staff, he wrong-footed himself twice in his first two interactions with Reagan. First by arranging to rig the selection of questions for a Chamber of Commerce Luncheon to ensure only pre-selected ones. Next in a cringe-inducing manner by attempting to micromanage an interview with a young Tom Brokaw to the minute including “at 9:07, he’d take his jacket off and sling it over his right shoulder, just the way Jack Kennedy showed us all how to do it.” Reagan, of course, let Deaver down easy. And over the coming years, both Reagans grew to trust and depend on him as an advisor and as a friend.
Reagan’s good humor, his fundamental decency and his love of Nancy form the backbone of this work.
After his assassination attempt, Deaver told the president during a hospital visit, “The White House is running like a well-oiled machine in your absence.” To which Reagan replied, “What makes you think I’d be happy to hear that?” Immediately after the assassination he quipped, “I’d like to do that scene again, starting at the hotel.”
Deaver’s closeness to the President, permits readers a glimpse of life inside the Reagan orbit. We learn, for instance, that Reagan never used makeup, but would occasionally have one glass of red wine to add a little color to his features before some of his most famous speeches. Or that he and Nancy were “the biggest pajama fans this side of Hugh Hefner.” Marrying Nancy Davis introduced Reagan to Nancy’s father, the renowned Dr. Loyal Davis. Reagan picked up a thing or two from the brilliant doc and would often regale companions with a detailed explanation of how to perform a tracheotomy.
Deaver gives us many vignettes into Reagan’s character from throughout his life that warm the heart. When Deaver learned he was going to be a father, Reagan told him, “Pray for a girl.” “What about Ron?” Deaver asked. “Oh, I love Ron,” Reagan said, “but having a little girl is like seeing your wife grow up all over again.” During the 1980 campaign, ultra liberal Eugene McCarthy wanted to endorse Governor Reagan. Puzzled, Deaver asked him why. “’I’ll tell you why,’ he said without smiling but loud enough to make sure I took it all in. ‘It’s because he is the only man since Harry Truman who won’t confuse the job with the man.’ McCarthy knew that Reagan understood the enormity of the office he sought, that it was bigger than any one man.”
Another tale involves Inauguration Day. Just before his speech, intelligence was indicating the release of the hostages in Iran was imminent. Reagan told Deaver, “If it happens, even during my Inaugural Address, I want you to tell me. Slip me a note. Interrupt me. Because if it happens, I want to bring Carter up to the platform. No country should embarrass and humiliate any president of the United States.”
During his time as governor Reagan would occasionally covertly slink away in the middle of the day to perform errands. These involved favors large and small for Californians who had reached out to him. One man serving in Vietnam asked the Governor to call his wife on their anniversary to make sure she was ok. Reagan went to the woman’s house personally and brought her a dozen roses on behalf of her husband serving overseas. In another instance, an eighty-year-old man sent a letter telling Reagan he was getting married and wanted to look his best, noting he had seen the governor on tv a few times and thought they were the same size. Upon checking, he discovered that they were. Reagan shipped off one of his suits to the man costing in excess of two thousand dollars. Deaver protested, telling Reagan to send him something from JC Penny, but Reagan would have none of it.
On the phone with Nancy, neither she nor Reagan wanted to be the last to say goodbye so their conversations would end with the president in hushed tones repeatedly whispering goodbye to his wife as the phone got closer to the cradle. When Nancy was away, his friends would find ways of cheering him up with old movies or other diversions. When flying somewhere without her, he prayed that God would look after her if something were to happen to him. But it is Nancy’s love for her husband that shines through the final pages as she soldiered on through the ravages of his awful disease. “When we said for better or for worse we meant it,” she would say.
Deaver’s book is a treasure and a reminder of how fortunate our country was to have Reagan, not only for what he did, but also for who he was.