by Charles Bierbauer

            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. 

            Deaver 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 writing 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 admonish our broadcast students that the audio—both words and ambient sound—are not afterthoughts to their reports.  In fact, much TV news video is little more than wallpaper to accompany the sound.

            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.

            Deaver 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.  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 essential.

              As a PR guy, I suggested, Mike would have told our public relations students to show their clients in the best possible light.  I told the journalism students that it is their responsibility not to be blinded by the light.


            Charles Bierbauer was CNN’s Senior White House Correspondent covering the Reagan administration.  He is now Dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university.  Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.




by Charles Bierbauer

“On the road again.” Sing it, Willy Nelson. “Just can’t wait to get on the road again.”

Willy and I must travel different roads, though we were together the other night tooling down US 25 in Georgia between Augusta and Savannah. I logged 460 miles on a two-day circle from Columbia, S.C., to Augusta, to Hilton Head via Savannah, and back to Columbia. In Georgia, there was lots of highway construction and little nighttime traffic. In South Carolina, there was rough road and plenty of sluggish traffic. Just couldn’t wait to get off the road again.

You can’t help wondering about the nation’s infrastructure when we have a bridge collapse on the Interstate in Minneapolis, pipes erupting through the streets of New York and airports looking like refugee camps filled with stranded passengers. Each has separate causes and consequences. What ties them together is the strong impression we are not taking good care of the things we depend on in so many ways.

It is as though the throwaway society that we have become when it comes to plastic water bottles, cell phones and auto parts—nah, we can’t fix that fuel pump; we’ll have to replace it!—has led us to forget that some things must have fixing and routine maintenance. We tear down a 40-year-old building or stadium because it is no longer stylish and invest hundreds of millions of dollars in new ones so we can live, work and entertain ourselves in comfort. Yet, as in Minneapolis, you can’t get to the ball park when the bridge is out.

In this election season, I find myself turning to the presidential candidates to see if any have ideas, plans, solutions for our growing problems. Mindful that all problems are not federal matters—Interstate highway maintenance is also a state responsibility—
I’d still like to have confidence in national leadership.

The Democratic candidates had an opportunity to show their insight and ingenuity on the infrastructure problem at this week’s AFL-CIO sponsored debate in Chicago. For the most part, they disappointed.

• Sen. Hillary Clinton proposes spending $3.8 billion a year as a “down payment” on a $1 trillion problem. (South Carolina alone has a $3 billion backlog of highway work, the Greenville News reported this week, citing Department of Transportation figures.)

• Sen. Joe Biden said he proposed a $20 billion infrastructure bill in 1992. “We don’t need any more studies,” Biden said.

• Gov. Bill Richardson said he was able to put $1.5 billion into highway and bridge construction in New Mexico and called for a federal/state/local partnership.

• Sen. Chris Dodd said “putting our country back to work begins by cutting the funding for the war in Iraq.”

The Democratic candidates generally described fixing the infrastructure in terms of jobs. Dodd: “For every $1 billion we spend…40,000 jobs can be created.” Jobs may be what moves the AFL-CIO audience, but how many bridges might $1 billion restore? How many lives might it spare?

One thing that won’t happen: A billion saved on the war in Iraq won’t convert to a billion for infrastructure. As every senator knows, Congress doesn’t work as a zero-sum game.

One thing that should happen, even though President Bush opposes a nickel a gallon gas tax increase: Congress should pass a 50-cent a gallon gas tax increase and devote half to repairing infrastructure and half to mass transit. Actually, that’s what should have happened during the 1973 gas crisis. Had Congress worked that way, we might not be having this discussion.

The candidates’ web sites don’t help much. Infrastructure doesn’t usually make their issues lists. Sen. John Edwards continues to lament—deservedly—the slow pace of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Hillary Clinton has an “innovation agenda” that includes an increased “research focus on the physical sciences and engineering.”

Sen. Barack Obama’s web site invites questions. So I sent an e-mail asking the Senator’s approach to infrastructure needs. And I got a prompt reply.

“Dear Charles…your priorities, experiences and perspectives are important to me,” it started. After four paragraphs of campaign boilerplate, it concluded: “Although I am unable to address each of the concerns raised in these communications individually, you can be assured that collectively they are helping shape my vision of where our country should go.”

Not what I was looking for, but nice to get a response. I almost can’t wait to get on the road again.


Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns from 1984 to 2000 for CNN. He is currently dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Dean Bierbauer is also the senior contributing editor and consultant to