Larry Speakes, White House spokesman during Reagan era, dies at 74

Former White House Press Secretaries (L-R): Mike McCurry, Pierre Salinger, Jerald terHorst and Larry Speakes stand in the White House Briefing Room moments before the start of a ceremony officially re-naming the room after former White House Press Secretary James Brad in Washington, DC in this Feb. 11, 2000 file photo.
LARRY DOWNING | REUTERS
Former White House Press Secretaries (L-R): Mike McCurry, Pierre Salinger, Jerald terHorst and Larry Speakes stand in the White House Briefing Room moments before the start of a ceremony officially re-naming the room after former White House Press Secretary James Brad in Washington, DC in this Feb. 11, 2000 file photo.
Posted Jan. 11, 2014, at 9:30 a.m.

Larry Speakes, 74, who was plunged, through a tragic assassination attempt, into the brightest of national spotlights as chief spokesman for President Ronald Reagan, died Friday in Cleveland, Miss.

A representative of a funeral home said Speakes had Alzheimer’s disease.

When Reagan press secretary James Brady was severely wounded in the 1981 attempt on the president, Speakes was thrust into the eye of the storm. As White House spokesman for six years, a long tenure in the sensitive post, he was credited with 2,000 news media briefings.

Aware that a wrong word could have catastrophic consequences, he provided information on some of the most significant events of the era, including the historic meetings between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Speakes also commanded the podium in the West Wing amid a growing furor over administration plans to trade arms to Iran in return for support of the Nicaraguan contras.

Unlike most presidential spokesmen, Speakes was officially a deputy press secretary, in deference to Brady.

Criticism and controversy came with the job he held, and he received his share, during and after his tenure. On his departure, he also received a Presidential Citizens Medal from Reagan.

An uproar broke out after he had left the White House with the revelation in his memoirs that he had put words in the president’s mouth. As disclosed in Speakes’ memoir, a fabricated quotation was offered to the news media at the 1985 summit between Reagan and Gorbachev. It went: “There is much that divides us, but I believe the world breathes easier because we are talking here together.”

Despite his acknowledgement that what he did was wrong, Speakes resigned from his post-White House position with what was then Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith.

Fault was also found with Speakes’ attribution to Reagan words spoken by Secretary of State George Shultz when the Soviets shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983.

During his tenure, Speakes was quoted as saying that “my job here is to serve the president.” And, he said, in explaining his job, “if that means drawing the line here and saying no more, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Many reporters found him hard-working and personally amiable, but they clashed with him over their desire to obtain more information than Speakes provided.

Testy exchanges were generated by questions about Reagan’s skin cancer. Speakes’ pronunciation of the name of economic adviser Martin Feldstein also became the subject of pointed commentary. Shortly before the United States invaded Grenada, he said it was “preposterous” to believe it would happen.

Speakes was born in Cleveland, Miss., in the state’s Delta region, on Sept. 13, 1939. His father was a banker, and his upbringing in the town of Merigold with its population of about 700 was said to be comfortably upper-middle-class.

He studied journalism at the University of Mississippi, and held editing and publishing jobs in the state during the 1960s.

In 1968, he began six years as press secretary to Sen. James Eastland, D-Miss. But his eye was on the White House. In the last months of the Nixon administration, he got there as a staff aide. He soon became the spokesman for James St. Clair, a special presidential counsel for the Watergate hearings. It acquainted him with the spokesman’s tightrope.

Following Richard Nixon’s resignation, Speakes remained at the White House as an assistant press secretary to President Gerald Ford. After Ford’s electoral defeat in 1976, he joined the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm.

A list of survivors was incomplete. According to The Associated Press, they include a daughter, two sons, six grandchildren and one grandchild.

 

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