Obituary: Larry Speakes / Reagan's chief spokesman, elevated after shooting

Sept. 13, 1939 - Jan. 10, 2014

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Larry Speakes, who strained to mediate between a hungry press corps and a media-distrustful White House as President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, died Friday in his native Mississippi. He was 74.

Mr. Speakes died at home in Cleveland, Miss., where he had lived the past several years, said Bolivar County Coroner Nate Brown. Mr. Brown said Mr. Speakes had Alzheimer’s disease.

“He died in his sleep and it was a natural death,” Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Speakes was buried in North Cleveland Cemetery during a private service Friday morning, a few hours after dying, said Kenny Williams of Cleveland Funeral Home.

The Washington Post reported in July 2009 that Mr. Speakes had Alzheimer’s disease and that his third wife was battling two of his children over who should care for him and his estate.

Mr. Speakes boasted that for most of his six years as presidential spokesman, Reagan’s “relationship with the press corps was better than that of any other president since John F. Kennedy.” Some reporters disagreed. And Mr. Speakes ignited a media firestorm after leaving the White House, when he wrote in “Speaking Out” (1988) that he had fed made-up quotes to reporters to make Reagan look better.

At the start of Reagan’s presidency in January 1981, Mr. Speakes was the little-known deputy to the administration’s press secretary, James Brady. Less than three months later, an assassination attempt wounded Reagan, almost killed Mr. Brady and elevated Mr. Speakes to the top public-affairs post.

His first steps were unsteady. Asked at a press conference who would run the government if Reagan underwent surgery before Vice President George H.W. Bush had returned to Washington from a trip, Mr. Speakes replied, “I cannot answer that question at this time.”

That reply angered Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who walked into the briefing room to make the memorable — and constitutionally inaccurate — claim, “As of now, I am in control here in the White House, pending the return of the vice president and in close touch with him.”

While his title remained deputy press secretary, out of deference to the injured Mr. Brady, Mr. Speakes became the public face of an administration that put a premium on stage-managing its news.

“When Speakes was informed, he could be helpful,” Helen Thomas, the longtime White House correspondent for United Press International, wrote in her 2000 memoir. “When he was cut out of the loop, what resulted could be embarrassing and infuriating. As I once told him, ‘You didn’t tell a lie, but you left a big hole in the truth.’”

Reagan and his inner circle, not trusting the press, kept Mr. Speakes in the dark about the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983 and made no arrangements for reporters to cover it. Mr. Speakes said being “lied to” by Reagan and his team on that occasion was the low point of his tenure.

Mr. Speakes also had what he called “a running battle with the press corps over their attire.”

His biggest contretemps came with the release of his memoir published one year after his 1987 departure from the White House.

In it, Mr. Speakes disclosed that at the 1985 summit in Geneva, the remarks he said Reagan had uttered to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were, in fact, made up by him and an aide. Those purported comments had been widely reported. They included, “There is much that divides us, but I believe the world breathes easier because we are talking here together.”

Mr. Speakes said he drafted and disseminated the made-up quotes because he feared the Americans were losing the public-relations battle to their Soviet counterparts. He also divulged that he had manufactured a quote attributed to Reagan after a Soviet fighter plane shot down a Korean Air Lines passenger jet in 1983.

“In retrospect, it was clearly wrong to take such liberties,” Mr. Speakes wrote.

The disclosures in Mr. Speakes’ book created an uproar. His successor as White House press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, called the fabrications a “damn outrage.” Reagan expressed disgust with what he called “kiss-and-tell books.”

The outcry forced Mr. Speakes to quit as senior vice president for communications for Merrill Lynch & Co., a job he had taken 14 months earlier.

Mr. Speakes was born on Sept. 13, 1939, in Cleveland, Mississippi, and raised in nearby Merigold, where his father managed a bank branch. He worked for the campus newspaper while studying journalism at the University of Mississippi and made some money as campus stringer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

After working as a reporter and editor at weekly newspapers, he moved to Washington in 1968 to become press secretary to Mississippi Senator James Eastland. Like Eastland, Mr. Speakes was, at that time, a Democrat.

Mr. Speakes joined Richard Nixon’s White House press team in March 1974, during the final stages of the Watergate scandal, and worked with the Republican president’s lead attorney, James D. St. Clair.

The release of the so-called smoking-gun audiotape, of Nixon and White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman talking about how to foil the FBI’s investigation of Watergate, “hit me like a ton of bricks,” Mr. Speakes later wrote, and prompted him to make a personal vow: “I would never again take a client unless I believed wholeheartedly in him.”

After Nixon resigned, Mr. Speakes stayed on as assistant press secretary to President Gerald Ford.

He worked on Senator Bob Dole’s unsuccessful 1976 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, then took a job at the public-affairs firm Hill & Knowlton. After trying in vain to land a job with the 1980 presidential campaigns of Bush, Jack Kemp and Haig, he was hired by Mr. Brady, Reagan’s spokesman, as the new administration prepared to take power.

After resigning from Merrill Lynch under pressure in 1988, Mr. Speakes worked as vice president of Northern Telecom Ltd., then became vice president for corporate relations at the U.S. Postal Service in 1994.

Mr. Speakes had three children from his first two marriages, both of which ended in divorce. He married his third wife, Aleta Sindelar, in 2001.

Associate Press contributed.

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