Reagan's Favorite Series? Try Leave It to Deaver, Starring Aide Mike and Wife Carolyn

updated 08/02/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/02/1982 01:00AM

The night he arrived in Washington to join his parents, a day after President Reagan's inaugural, Blair Deaver, 5, was given a tour of the capital and its spotlit, ghostly marble monuments. "Dad," the wide-eyed boy asked as Michael K. Deaver tucked him in later, "is Washington part of Planet Earth?" The response: "I don't know yet."

In many ways, Mike Deaver, 44, and wife Carolyn, 42, are still trying to figure out the answer. As Reagan's Deputy Chief of Staff, Deaver is one of the White House Big Three, along with Counselor Ed Meese and Chief of Staff Jim Baker. Literally as well as figuratively, he is the closest of them to the President. His circular office, right next to the Oval one, is the nook Jimmy Carter used as a private study. "Access is clout," says former Deaver aide Joe Canzeri. "Mike can walk in anytime he chooses." Deaver is the first aide to see Reagan in the morning and often the last at night. Because of his position, he and Carolyn get about 50 social invitations a week. Before they decided to cut back on evenings out, they got dolled up so often that little Blair thought "black tie" was the name of a restaurant.

The Deavers still marvel at the courting they get in the capital. Says Mike: "We were with the Reagans in Sacramento for eight years and weren't the subject of any attention." Carolyn especially remains intrigued by the way she has to juggle the demands of pomp and those of mundane circumstance—like cleaning the house and driving Blair and the Deavers' other child, Amanda, 12, to school and assorted appointments in the family's '79 Olds Cutlass station wagon.

"These hands that shook Queen Beatrix's hand vacuumed the house just an hour before," she says with a laugh. Even grocery shopping can be an exotic experience for a Washington newcomer. In the aisles of the Georgetown Safeway (often referred to as "the social Safeway") some of the best and freshest gossip in town is traded; Carolyn has even heard her husband's name mentioned while picking over the produce. "I've never seen so many people so well turned out at a market," she says—adding to Mike, "Some Saturday I'll take you, if you'll dress up.

"Life in Washington is fascinating," she continues. "I just wish there was a little more time to smell the flowers." At first she nervously boned up on current topics before going to parties. No longer. "I've learned to float along," she says. "I used to speak about Washington as a foreign city where they happen to speak the same language I do. But after the first year you really get a feel for it."

As the man who schedules all presidential activities, Mike Deaver gets involved in everything from policy and personnel matters to the proper seating at state dinners and the complicated choreography of a trip like Reagan's June visit to Europe (on which Deaver got some heat for keeping his employer so busy he dozed from fatigue during an audience with the Pope). Deaver knows the Chief Executive's best camera angles, decides who gets in to see him, and keeps him briefed. "I know the mood of the man, how to gauge the news, and how to tell it to him," Mike observes. "That comes from being through a lot of defeat and sorrows. I think everybody in public life has someone like that." "Mike's the Bad News Bearer," quips the Deavers' friend, Bendix exec Nancy Reynolds.

One requisite for the role is a tough hide. "I'm getting better at reacting to criticism, but that first article really poked a spear in my heart," Carolyn says, referring to a 1981 column by pundits Rowland Evans and Robert Novak that accused her husband of getting White House favors for people who were his clients back when he was a California public relations executive. Though Mike is less fazed by criticism—"I usually know when it's coming and where it's coming from"—some things do rankle him, such as the hostile reaction to a recent story quoting the Deavers on the tough time they were having getting by on his $60,662 salary. "That's bothered me the most," he admits. "We get letters from people saying they'll send us a case of dog food to live on."

Yet the financial bind facing a family on temporary Washington service is no joke. The cost of the Deavers' rented house, once owned by Post Editor Ben Bradlee ("Some of the ghosts of Watergate are still creeping around here," Mike jokes), exceeds the rent they get for their own mortgaged split-level in Sacramento. Tuition for Amanda's private school is twice what it was back home. Their vigorous (for them) social life also comes high: "I need to have more clothes than I ever had in my life," Carolyn notes. They manage to keep their baby-sitting costs down by getting a student to do the job in exchange for room and board. Still, Mike maintains he will have to return to private life after this November's mid-term elections: "I have no money left. We are living on savings."

Deaver picks up the Washington Post on his doorstep at 6:30 every morning, is chauffeured to the White House for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast with Meese and Baker, and is at his desk by 8. He feels his job is to stay deep in the background, although one aide reports, "He'll get angry over what he believes in." One irritation is Republicans who call him to beef about his boss. "They are the same people who slap the President on the back and say, 'Hang in there, Dutch,' " Deaver observes. "I tell them to tell him themselves, I'll have the call put through. The trouble is that when people get around the President of the United States, they ultimately end up telling him what they think he wants to hear."

Deaver grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., where his dad was a Shell Oil distributor. "We were lower middle class," Mike says. "Ours was the last house on the block to get a TV. We used to go to somebody else's home every Wednesday to watch roller derby and wrestling." Mike earned part of his tuition at San Jose State by playing piano—"You can hum it, I can play it"—and considered becoming an Episcopal priest. Instead he joined IBM but soon decided "it was all too structured for me." At 24, he cashed in his savings to tour Europe, Africa and Australia. When the money ran out he performed in a servicemen's center in Sydney until a friend offered him passage home to California and a gig in his club in San Jose. "I was interested in politics and thought I'd better start or I'd end up playing the piano the rest of my life," Mike says. So he went to see the director of the Santa Clara County GOP. "I'm going to quit," the man said. "How would you like my job?" Deaver said yes, and worked through the 1964 presidential election for Barry Goldwater. Later Deaver joined the Republican state committee and organized two successful state assembly races. In 1966 he moved up another notch and hooked up with Governor-elect Reagan as his assistant Cabinet secretary.

Carolyn was adopted at 1 month (and a younger brother and sister at a later date) from a San Francisco orphanage by Ford dealer Frank Judy and his wife, Mary. She studied art at Berkeley and the University of Vienna. In 1960, after graduating from Berkeley, she worked in Vienna for the U.N. and then bounced around the U.S. working as a travel agent and renovating houses. "I got fired when I reversed height and width and ordered five miles of custom cafe curtains," she cracks. In 1966 she signed on with Reagan as a secretary. She met Mike soon after, when she sought a raise. "I couldn't oblige because we had a freeze," Mike says, "so I said, 'I'll take you to dinner.' "

Carolyn demurred: "I said I didn't want dinner, I wanted the raise." But he persisted. "I knew someday lightning would strike, and when I saw this little girl who was so cute and charming, it did." What attracted her? "Hair," she quips about her husband, who at 31 was relatively full-maned. They were married two months later in an Episcopal ceremony in the Yosemite Park chapel.

They've been out of politics only twice since. When his mentor left the governorship in 1974, Deaver and Peter Hannaford opened a PR firm (it's main mission was to keep Reagan's image burnished). Then in 1979 Deaver quit Reagan's presidential campaign for six months in a dispute with his since dismissed co-adviser, John Sears. "It was eerie—the phone never rang," Carolyn recalls. "But you have to experience the cold to appreciate the warmth."

For a time this year, following the Libyan assassination scare, the family had 24-hour Secret Service protection. "I was thunderstruck—they even followed the kids to school," Carolyn recalls. "We needed it," Blair explains, "because the house squeaks at night."

The big fright, of course, came when Reagan was shot in March '81. "I was in a sewing shop a block away when I heard it on the radio," Carolyn recalls. "My reaction was to scoop the children up from school." Blair couldn't believe his father was O.K. Seeing films of the fallen Jim Brady, he kept asking, "Are you sure that's not Daddy? That man is bald like Daddy." In fact, one bullet passed just over Deaver's shoulder. "I'm sure when I get out of the White House that incident will have much more impact on my life than I know today," he says. "When I realized there were five people there, one of them me, and four were hit, I have to feel I had some special protection that day." It was Deaver who told Nancy Reagan her husband had been wounded.

Though Carolyn is on the board of the prestigious Phillips Collection (a private art museum), she has kept other Washington-wife commitments to a minimum. "Look," she explains, "I'm going out the same door I came in." As for Mike, he may be somewhat less immune to Potomac fever. "Giving up the perks wouldn't be difficult," he says of his eventual departure. "But leaving the daily relationship with Nancy and Ronald Reagan will be the hardest thing I've ever done." The biggest surprise the Deavers have had, he adds, "is that we have fallen in love with Washington. A few months ago we spent a day on a farm with people who have served in four Administrations, Democratic and Republican. It was fascinating to me. Driving home, I said to Carolyn, 'Do you suppose 10 years from now people are going to be sitting around talking about what we did right and what we did wrong?' "

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