By  Michael Deaver





Although I believe it is essential for students of English as a foreign language (EFL) or as a second language (ESL) to read books in English I never recommend English literature. Some of the most famous books, especially if they are over sixty years old, have too many out of date phrases which can be obstacles for any student.

I look for modern books which have some educational value, because even if they have a lot of fixed phrases or sayings that need to be interpreted; at least these phrases will be worth learning as examples of current English.

With this idea in mind I have been using Michael Deaver´s memoir of his twenty years as an official – or ‘staffer’ – to the late president Ronald Reagan, ‘A Distant Drummer’ (Harper Collins, 2001).

I remember the book as a warm, affectionate tribute to the former president (recently voted one of the top ten best presidents of the USA) and I remember its interesting, fast-moving style.

It is a very readable book, but looking at it in detail through the eyes of a student of English as a foreign language, its phrases start to look a bit too modern for your purposes. Still, they are modern phrases and if Michael Deaver can use them then other writers will too, so they´re worth the effort.


One problem is that many of the words and phrases used in the book belong to the vocabulary of North American election campaigns and many of the people associated with these activities speak a jargon that might not be understood by everyone.

Is this movie star Ronald Reagan in 1938 or George Clooney in 2008?

For instance, one of Reagan’s early opponents for governor of California, George Christopher, was ‘getting good ink’ (good reports in newspapers) while on the next page Reagan was a waiting in a television studio set, ‘drinking a mug of navy-strength java’ (very strong coffee).


The next phrase, a political ‘new kid on the block’ might be easier to explain, but Democrats, ‘weren’t about to roll over for Reagan’ is more difficult to translate (were not going to surrender).

Deaver tells us that Ronald Reagan ‘excelled at grip and grin sessions’. Even a native speaker of English from outside the USA might have to make a guess at that one! (meeting groups of members of the public).

Deaver later mentions that something ‘threw him for a loop’ which, I suppose the student would recognize as a saying (surprised or upset him). But a later phrase could be taken all too literally: Reagan adopted his opponent Pat Brown’s policies and profited from this action.  Deaver describes this – ‘Reagan ate Pat Brown’s lunch.’ The average student might wonder how Reagan, a true gentleman, could possibly be so hungry or impolite.

Reagan himself was ‘soft on his staffers’ (kind to his assistants) although he was hard on himself. He rejects ‘easy option’ suggestions saying, ‘You can’t hit a home run on a soft ball.’ This is a nice phrase that North Americans and baseball fans would easily understand, although students in the rest of the world might have to guess the meaning.

All of these sayings and fixed phrases from sports appear in the first 29 pages of a 223-page book; they are also frequent in subsequent pages. They require some work from the teacher and the student but I think they´re worth it because they are modern, current phrases in American English.

As always, provided the student understands that this is North American English it can be rewarding. The book as a whole is a warm and personal account of an extraordinary man which contains many fascinating insights into life at the top in US politics.