CHAOS HIT the White House press room by mid-afternoon. March 30, 1981: the day the president, two security men and spokesman James Brady were shot. Larry Speakes, deputy to the press secretary who at that moment was in brain surgery, had been on the job two months; this was his baptism. He seemed dazed as he stared into the glare of TV lights. Then came the crucial question: "Has the U.S. military been placed on any higher readiness?"

"Not that I'm aware of," Speakes replied stiffly, accidentally implying there might be an armed forces alert. At that moment, Secretary of State Alexander Haig--who was watching from the White House Situation Room--ran upstairs and began his "I am in control here" speech. Speakes, who had careened from question to shouted question, was relegated to the sidelines. Many say it was Speakes' lowest moment.

The White House press room, Feb. 19, 1982. It's calm. The news of the day is a story reporting, among other things, that Haig has called British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington a "duplicitous bastard." He also, according to notes taken at his staff meetings, has said he went before the cameras on March 30 because Speakes "couldn't answer anything."

Q: "Did you talk to the president about the Haig story?"

A: "I surely did." Speakes grins.

Q: "How would you sum up his reaction?"

A: "He didn't have any reaction that I wish to convey to you."

Q: "Is it true, Larry, that anytime you don't answer our questions Haig will come out?" The room fills with laughter.

"Says so in the book," says Speakes, laughing himself. "Not much has changed from that since last year. Still don't know anything . . . I tell you--off the record, please. I came out of this a slight edge below Lord Carrington. He's the only one that was worse-off than I was. That was some day, wasn't it?"

In less than a year, the uncertain press spokesman has become a relaxed jouster in the arena of the daily White House press briefing, the farcical, often futile grilling that is one of the best--and most intimidating--shows in town. Although March 30 might have rattled even expert press fencers like John Kennedy's Pierre Salinger or Lyndon Johnson's Bill Moyers, Speakes was regarded in the weeks afterward as a lightweight. It was an assessment reinforced when David Gergen, one of the early administration stars, was promoted to communications chief in June. But Speakes, a Mississippi banker's son who says he lives by the expression "just keep on keeping on," struggled through.

And now, although he doesn't have the high-level access of Carter administration spokesman Jody Powell, the favorite phrase among the White House press is that "Larry has grown." The White House hierarchy, which has had its ups and downs with Speakes, generally agrees. "Here's a guy," says chief of staff James Baker, "who was thrust into a very tough job by circumstance. He stepped in and has just performed superlatively."

Speakes now has the confidence to correct the president, as he says he and deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver did during Reagan's interview with CBS' Dan Rather. ("Mr. President, that's not exactly where we stand on the Voting Rights Act," Speakes recalls that he delicately pointed out.) And he has acquired more of an infighter's nerve to skirmish with the gangling, more experienced Gergen, whom he frequently, and not always affectionately, calls "Tall."

The two share briefing duties, with Speakes at the podium three days a week and Gergen two. But Gergen, who admits "there may be a lack of continuity sometimes," says he's "rethinking" the arrangement. Other White House officials expect Gergen to give all five days to Speakes sometime soon, although Gergen would brief periodically on special issues. Brady's job will stay open for him.

Speakes appears set on this arrangement that grew out of March 30, and says he's waiting for the convalescing press secretary to come back. Then he recalls, in his soft Delta drawl, the lunch he had with "The Bear" that day in the White House mess.

"You want me to go to this thing at the Hilton?" Speakes asked Brady.

"No," Brady replied. "I'll go."

Speakes pauses. "A day doesn't go by," he says quietly, "when I don't think of that."

The Daily Grit

Speakes moved into Brady's corner office in the West Wing last summer, leaving the trademark bear on the mantel but putting Mississippi folk art on the walls. He grew up in Merigold, a two-blink town in soybean, cotton and Elvis country. He calls Presley a "genius" who came from the same Delta roots that produced such Speakesisms as "we couldn't lay it on"--which these days can mean sorry, no interview with Reagan.

It is hard to find anyone among the White House press corps who doesn't like Speakes personally, although there've been a few squabbles. He is widely regarded as straightforward; "unflappable" is the popular adjective. But he is still not on the same inside track as Gergen, and has to push, or have others push for him, to be included in crucial White House meetings--most recently the Monday issues lunches with Reagan and last month's strategy session with 14 others at Camp David. "He has better access than he used to have," says NBC's John Palmer, "but I wish he had a lot more." Making policy is not in his job description.

But the daily grit is. Speakes is the day-to-day media floor man who directs traffic, extinguishes news flare-ups and yelled "Lights!"--meaning stop the cameras--when ABC's Sam Donaldson, breaking current White House rules, asked Reagan about El Salvador during a recent Oval Office photo session.

He has also briefed Reagan on the absolutely critical difference between CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl and NBC White House correspondent Judy Woodruff. " 'I can't get the two female reporters straight,' " Speakes says the president sighed.

He tried to move the press in from the rain when Reagan made formal remarks under a canopy on the South Lawn, at the same time rejecting the briefing room as an alternative location. "Scares him to death," Speakes said of Reagan. "Subjects the president to questions."

And when reporters were apt to ask Reagan about the Israeli furor over the possible sale of U.S. arms to Jordan, it was Speakes, the company man, who kept photographers from the Oval Office because "if we let anybody in without letting everybody in, particularly with the interest in Israel . . . it doesn't gain anything."

He is 42, has sandy hair and a rounder build now that he doesn't have time to jog regularly. (Although he started again last week to compete with 15 top White House aides in an "Easter Renewal Project" weight-loss program.) He likes country music star Merle Haggard, says he was "deeply impressed" by Pope John Paul II and is a fanatic about his son's Little League. He isn't a regular at Mel Krupin's, the political lunch bullring, preferring instead a BLT on toast brought to his office. He is often seated in the second staff compartment on Air Force One--with the secretaries, and without complaining. "Never cash in your chips until it counts," he says. But his laid-back style hides what reporters say is a drive as healthy as any at the White House.

Sometimes his face resembles Jody Powell's, and lately, he has adopted some of Powell's sense of mischief. In January he had Son Thomas, a black Mississippi blues singer, perform "The White House Press Corps Blues" from the briefing room stage as reporters watched in amazement. It was Martin Luther King's birthday. Gergen, worried that it would be perceived badly among blacks, became highly alarmed. "I don't know whether he said anything to James Baker or not," Speakes laughs. "I just thought it was great."

And there was the time several weeks ago when a visiting Chinese journalist complained at the noon press briefing that he'd been assigned a police escort. This hadn't happened, he added, when he'd visited the Carter White House.

"Would you please confirm that it was an honest mistake?" asked the journalist, Zhou Lifang of the Xinhua News Agency.

"Or a dishonest mistake," somebody else piped up.

"Yes or no!" yelled another reporter.

Speakes had the ball. "First, let me say," he said, with an expert pause and a big smile, "welcome to the White House."

The Briefing

He does it Monday, Wednesday and Friday at noon. (Gergen has Tuesdays and Thursdays.) The preparation starts six hours earlier, when he gets up to WETA radio's Bill Cerri. He has raisin toast, tea and The Washington Post either in bed or in the kitchen, and at the same time divides a piece of yellow legal paper into two columns, "Foreign" and "Domestic." Stories get listed accordingly; Nicaragua, El Salvador and Reagan's letter to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were entered under the foreign column recently; the "wholesale price index, or whatever it is, CPI or something," came under domestic.

He leaves his Annandale split-level at 7, gets to the office at 7:30, talks to assistant Pete Roussel, reads The New York Times and the White House news summary, goes to the senior staff meeting at 8, Gergen's office at 8:30, has his staff in at 8:45, has a small group of reporters in at 9:15, "pops in to the president" at 9:45 for five or 10 minutes, reads the overnight foreign cables in the situation room, maybe attends a Cabinet meeting, then winds up back in his office at 11:30, armed with the news bits he's collected throughout the morning.

"Now, what happens is," he says, "Pete and David will come up with a Q-and-A format. They'll have El Salvador, five or six points to make. Or they'll have housing starts. See, they give it to you page by page, and you sit there behind your desk and say, 'All right, this, this and this, I understand that. What about this?' We'll throw a few questions around. Then sometimes they'll go back to the phone to get more, call Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Murray Weidenbaum, or call Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Dean Fischer at State to be sure we're on target on something. Sometimes they'll hand me one, and I'll say, 'I don't know anything about this. What's the issue? What's the story? They'll say, 'Well, you know, this morning The Times had on page three a story about such and such.' 'Okay, I got it.' Then I go down with a folder. And do the briefing."

The results of his work are almost immediate. At the briefing of Feb. 17, the day after AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland called Reagan's program "Jonestown economics"--in reference to the 1978 mass suicide in Guyana--Speakes opted for a classier-than-thou, regretful response. "A sad, sad choice of words," he told reporters at both 9:15 a.m. and noon. By midafternoon, press assistant Kim Hoggard arrived in his office with national wire copy from both AP and UPI--information which, taken together, goes to nearly all of America's newspapers, representing a potential audience of 150 million readers.

"Your 'sad, sad choice of words' was in," Hoggard said.

"Oh really?" replied Speakes, pleased. "We'll see what that does to Kirkland."

The In-House Wars

Despite the apparent coziness of the prebriefing session, the bumpy union of Gergen and Speakes has become the latest spectator sport among the White House press. Gergen is the intellectual tactician who, organizationally, is an unmade bed. His noon briefings run long and often start a half-hour late. He has mastered the trick of returning a phone call later in the day, when he knows a reporter has gone home. Speakes is as dependable as the White House switchboard, but isn't known for long-range strategy. A reporter who needs an analysis of the New Federalism calls Gergen. On deadline, it might be more productive to try Speakes.

Flaps result. "Sure, it's not perfect," says Gergen. "I think our relationship is ah, ah, warm. And getting warmer. There have been some awkward moments--as there are in any organization where there's a great deal of tension and stress." The worst times, he adds, are past--particularly last summer when Speakes returned more confident after a restful month with the press near Reagan's California ranch. Gergen, who was on the opposite coast, admits feeling out of the action that one colleague says he "mainlines."

"There's not a personal tension," says Speakes.

"Despite what either one will tell you," says one White House reporter, "they're pretty much at each other's throats."

Several times, for instance, Speakes made statements at his 9:15 a.m. press briefing that Gergen found disturbing when he read them a few hours later off the wire service machines. He highlighted the quotes with a yellow marker pen, then took them in to Baker. In one instance, Baker called Speakes in and, in the words of Speakes, said, "'Here's a wire story you screwed up.'"

"I watch the wires for whatever anybody says," responds Gergen. "Part of my job is to monitor. I've gone in to Baker on several occasions with marked-up wire stories that apply to me, that apply to Larry, or that apply to what Cabinet members have said."

Then there was the Great Xerox Machine War. The machine, used frequently by Speakes' staff, was never returned to the press office after a recent refurbishing. Speakes demanded it back in a vacant office with the wire service machines. Gergen felt that was a waste of precious space, and requested the office for his deputy, Joanna Bistany. Negotiations only slightly less intense than SALT ensued; Speakes won, sort of. The wires, not Bistany, now inhabit the disputed office. Meanwhile, the location of the Xerox machine remains unknown.

Meanwhile, Gergen and Speakes say they're trying. "It'll work out," says Speakes.

Gergen assesses Speakes like this: "There is no doubt that he has grown enormously--in his ability to deal with the president, in his ability to deal with the issues and, most important, in his maturity."

The Roots

The banker's son grew up comfortable but not rich. "We were as middle class as you could get," he says. "Daddy didn't own the bank, he just worked there." He married his high school sweetheart at 17, then went to the University of Mississippi in Oxford, an antebellum town with a courthouse as its centerpiece. "My ambition, facetiously," says Speakes, "is to go back to Mississippi and be a sage, and just sit on the courthouse steps. Everybody comes along, I want to tell them what I think."

He worked for the college newspaper, then began a career of editing and publishing weeklies in the Delta. He covered the 1962 integration of Ole Miss for the Bolivar Commercial, but friends say he was never a hard-edged desegregationist like Hodding Carter, the Carter administration State Department spokesman who ran the nearby Delta Democrat-Times.

"He struck me as not really having any politics," says Curtis Wilkie, the Boston Globe White House correspondent who went to college with Speakes and covered Mississippi politics in the early 1960s. "At the same time, he never waved a right-wing flag, either. I would never characterize him as a segregationist--although he went to work for one."

Wilkie was referring to Sen. James Eastland, the now-retired chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Speakes got the job through a friend as Eastland's press secretary. He describes his own politics as "bedrock conservatism," or "the Bible according to Ronald Reagan."

After six years with Eastland, Speakes got a call from the White House and wound up as press spokesman to James St. Clair, Nixon's Watergate lawyer. "It was a tightrope for me," he says. He was too much of a low-rung assistant, he says, to know much of what went on; after Nixon's resignation speech, "which was worse than any southern funeral I ever sat through," he went to work in Gerald Ford's press office, was press spokesman to vice presidential candidate Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) in 1976, then went to the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm. During Reagan's campaign, he worked part-time as the liaison to Ford; when Reagan won, he called Brady, at that time the transition spokesman. "Brady said, 'We start at 7 o'clock in the morning.' We went from there."

In those days, Speakes had the near-impossible job of keeping Brady's desk clean. It was just getting cleared, he says, when Brady was shot. Speakes stayed at the White House that night and slept on Brady's couch, the one that's now his.

"It was an eerie feeling," he says, "to come in here at 2 a.m., and think about Jim, and being in his office, and then think about him out there, and whether he was going to live or not. I remember I closed these drapes, not the heavy ones, but the little ones, and the whole place just was unreal, the glow of the light. I must have slept 'til about 5."

The Balance

These days, part of his job includes stonewalling. "See," he says, "there's a lot you know, and there's a lot you get paid for by taking a little heat out there . . . there may be a conflict on any given day. The president in the morning wakes up and reads The Post. Or the television people read The Post and The Times. They meet at 8 o'clock and say, 'This is our story for today. El Salvador.' And they say, 'We need to get the president talking on El Salvador. Great.' And we're sitting down here meeting at 8 o'clock, and we say, 'Well, the press is going to be after us on El Salvador because of that story in The Post this morning.' And we say, 'I don't think we want to say anything on it today.' So there's a natural conflict."

There are also inane questions.

"Has it been your experience that many young men in Mississippi ever asked their parents for permission to use contraceptives, Larry?" Lester Kinsolving, notorious press gnat, asked at a briefing last month.

"When I was a kid, growing up, we didn't have those things."

"One is tempted to ask what you did."

"I'll tell you later."

Then Speakes turned magenta.

Away from the tumult of the briefing, Speakes assesses this press corps. "Generally good," he rates. "I've observed the Watergate press corps, which was no comparison, and I've observed the Ford press corps, which we felt missed the big picture and concentrated on the stumbles and bumbles. But by and large, with a few exceptions, this press corps has covered President Reagan in detail. They've been hard and tough on us when we deserved to be questioned--when El Salvador broke out, when the M16s came in El Salvador, and on the performance of the economy. It's a good, solid press corps. And the one thing I appreciate most is that there's not that bitterness. I think whatever lingered after the Nixon pardon through Ford and after Carter, it's really not there now . . . .

"Although it's a prestigious beat in the city," he says, "the White House is still a difficult beat. You're confined, and you're largely forced to operate by telephone . . . My objective is to make that briefing a profitable experience and not an exercise in, ahhhh, whatever."

He offers this theory about relations with the press: When an administration begins on Jan. 20, it has $100 in the bank. Every time it does something wrong with the press--"mishandling, misleading, putting 'em out in the rain, being late with getting the speech text out, not having a good background briefing"--it loses $5. Every time it does something right, it gains $1.

"You're going to run out of money," says Speakes. "But it's a question of whether you run out in the first six months or the first year or whatever."

The Reagan administration balance now?

"Fifty dollars," he says.

The Family

One recent sleeting night, Speakes got home at 8:15, changed into worn-out Levi's, a plaid shirt and topsiders, ate a waffle that his wife fixed, then settled down into an easy chair. His wife, Laura, was in another chair. She is slim, with short hair, high cheekbones and a beautiful face. Speakes married her in 1968 after divorcing his first wife. Laura, an executive assistant at Army Times, had worked for him at the Mississippi newspapers. In another chair is Jeremy, 11, Speakes' son by this marriage. The room is suburban American. There's a big color television in the corner, a comfortable couch, wooden coffee table and a warm fire.

Unlike many White House wives, Laura Speakes says she actually enjoys her husband's job. "There are a lot of fringe benefits that go along with it," she says. "It's a lot of fun, it really is. You sort of feel like you're one of the few. There are a lot of people who would love to do it, and you really have to treasure that. It's a very special time in your life."

On the day after the shooting, the family collected in this room and talked about what happened as a tape recorder played. Speakes keeps that, and tapes of half a dozen of his briefings as well. One is Jan. 20, 1981, on Iran, and another is on the grain embargo. There are three from March 30. By request, he goes to his tape deck and plays one. In the quiet room, the snow falling outside, the anger and fright of the day burst back in.

"Larry," yells CBS' Lesley Stahl, "what is the consideration in not keeping us more up to date on the president's condition? We know he's in surgery . . . ." Speakes, stretched out on the floor by his tape deck, listens intently.

Later, he reflects on his job. "Your words can start a war, or drive the stock market haywire," he says. "And it's still a shock when somebody says, 'Your picture is on the front page of The New York Times,' or you wake up at 6 o'clock and here comes the news and it's Bill Cerri, quoting you. You feel like you're at the center of the universe here. The times I've interviewed for jobs outside the city, my heart hasn't been in it."

"In January 1978," he says, "I said I'd like to go back to the White House and be the spokesman. And it happened. In a way, it's frightening. Every wish has come true. That sounds like I'm talking with big eyes--'Wow, look-a here'--but that's what happened."