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Reagan's character shines through

A DIFFERENT DRUMMER: MY THIRTY YEARS WITH RONALD REAGAN; by Michael Deaver; HarperCollins, 223 pages; $25.00.

In a very deeply felt and conversational reminiscence about his years as an adviser to Ronald Reagan, Michael Deaver takes pains to correct everything he considers mythological about the man. In the first place, says Deaver, he was not lazy but, rather, a man of "amazing stamina." In fact, he spent hours reading briefing papers on the plane "when the rest of us were too tired to think straight anymore."

In the second place, the president with the impressive head of hair never dyed it. Deaver knows that "for certain."

"For years, the Reagan haters had literally sifted through his barber's trash can, searching for a dyed gray lock that could serve as a tiny metaphor for a phony man . . . they searched in vain. It was an old actor's trick — Brylcreem — that gave Reagan's hair that dark gloss, not Clairol for Men."

In spite of innate shyness, Reagan had "a boyish charm, almost a naive posture that disarmed you. He clearly didn't have all the answers, but just when you were about to dismiss him, he'd answer a question with such eloquence you were spellbound."

Deaver recounts a number of Reagan anecdotes. He says Reagan took great pains one day to teach him the Heimlich maneuver to save the live of someone choking on food. Deaver was impatient to be spending so much time on a non-political issue. Then only a few weeks later, Reagan choked on peanuts on his campaign plane, and Deaver grabbed him from behind and successfully performed the Heimlich.

When Reagan recovered his breath, he said to Deaver, "I'm sure glad I taught you that darned thing."

Reagan had terrible eyesight since childhood and wore contact lenses as an adult. According to Deaver, he always carried his three-by-five cards to help him with his speeches, but he needed reading glasses to read his speech when he wore contacts. Instead of using glasses, he popped out his left contact so he could see his audience with one eye and his speech with the other.

Soon after being elected, Reagan spoke with boyish enthusiasm about "the nice big round office," and he was determined to pay it proper reverence. One hot day after a rose-garden ceremony, Deaver accompanied Reagan back into the Oval Office, where Deaver ripped his coat and tie off, then was surprised to see Reagan keeping his on. "Mr. President," said Deaver, "Why don't you take your jacket off?" Reagan said, "Oh, no. I could never take my coat off in this office."

At the same time, Deaver sees Reagan as an idealist who thought anyone could be president and even believed that Mikhail Gorbachev as leader of the Soviet Union "believed in a higher power." Most impressive on a personal level, Reagan was allegedly the kind of man who would typically spend the entire evening at any social affair with the least-known person there. "He would never peek over his conversation partner's shoulder" to look for someone more important.

Once, while Reagan was governor, Deaver was with him when someone mistook him for movie star Ray Milland and asked for an autograph. Reagan calmly signed, "Ray Milland," and sent the man on his way. Afterward, Deaver asked, "Why did you do that? You're the governor of California. Why didn't you tell him?"

"Mike," he said softly, "I know who I am. Don't ever worry about me."


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com