Larry Speakes, former Reagan deputy press secretary, dies at 74

January 10

Larry Speakes, who was plunged, through a tragic 1981 assassination attempt, into the brightest of national spotlights, as chief spokesman for President Ronald Reagan, died Friday in Cleveland, Miss. He was 74.

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

When Reagan press secretary James Brady was severely wounded in the attempt on the president, Mr. Speakes was thrust into the eye of the storm. Over six years, a long tenure in his 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.

Mr. 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.


Larry Speakes, seen here in 1982, became the acting White House press secretary after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in March 1981. ( Harry Naltchayan/The Washington Post)

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

Criticism and controversy came with the job, 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 Mr. Speakes’s 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.”

Mr. Speakes acknowledged that he had erred, and resigned from his post-White House position with what was then Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith. (He later worked for the U.S. Postal Service.)

Fault was also found with his attributing 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, Mr. Speakes was quoted as saying that “my job here is to serve the president.” And, he said, in explanation, “if that means drawing the line here and saying no more, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Many reporters found him hardworking and personally amiable, but they clashed with him over their desire for more information than he provided.

Testy exchanges were generated by questions about Reagan’s skin cancer. Mr. Speakes’s 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.

Larry Melvin 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 he edited and managed newspapers in the state during the 1960s.

In 1968, he began six years as press secretary to Sen. James O. 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 D. St. Clair, a special presidential counsel for the Watergate hearings. That taught him that the spokesman was often on a tightrope.

After Richard M. Nixon’s resignation, Mr. Speakes remained to become an assistant press secretary to President Gerald R. Ford. After Ford’s electoral defeat in 1976, he joined the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm but missed the White House.

A list of survivors was incomplete. According to the funeral home, they include a daughter, two sons, six grandchildren and a great-grandchild.