Not even Ronald Reagan deserves Larry Speakes.
Speakes' just-published memoir of his years as presidential spokesman, "Speaking Out: Inside the Reagan White House," is the reductio ad absurdum of two deplorable fashions in the publishing industry. One derives from Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca's best-selling autobiography. The other derives from budget director David Stockman's famous 1981 confessions to William Greider in The Atlantic, which led to best-selling books by both Greider and Stockman.
Iacocca kicked off the fad of memoirs by big shots ghostwritten for them by professional hacks in a jocular, conversational style. Because the prose is by pros, all these books read alike. Two things make Speakes' product, ghosted by one Robert Pack, especially absurd. First, he was never a real big shot. He was just a minor character in a minor job that he got only by gruesome chance (when Jim Brady was shot). Second, although his only claim to fame is as a spokesman for someone else, he needs a third party to put words in his own mouth for a book. Subspecialization in the plagiarism industry has really gone too far.
Mr. Pack -- I think of him as Mr. Hack -- doesn't strain for novelty. When Speakes sat in the Oval Office, "I felt a cold shudder going down my spine. . . . What's a kid from a dusty little cotton town in Mississippi doing here?" When Reagan heard about the Challenger disaster, he "had the saddest look on his face I have ever seen." And so on.
After Stockman, what publishers want from inside-Washington memoirs is not a rounded portrait, let alone a serious discussion of public affairs, but rather little scooplets of news. Their dream is to make page one (and Dan Rather). That, apparently, sells books, which is odd. Why shell out $19.95 for a book when you've already learned all the juicy stuff for free? It all confirms my suspicion that publishers assume (correctly) that many thick best sellers are bought for reasons other than reading them.
So the publisher hires a ghostwriter to plumb the author's brain for "scoops." But scoops of a particular kind. Generally they consist of the insider's saying something every outsider knows to be true. Stockman, for example, made headlines by saying that Reagan's tax cuts favored the rich and would lead to huge deficits. This was hardly news. The news was that Stockman said it.
Thus, in a weird twist on the hoary Washington practice of leaving office and cashing in, insiders are now in the business of selling their own gaffes. A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth -- some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say. Capitalizing on the media's huge appetite for gaffes, insiders now manufacture them for profit.
Like cultured pearls, manufactured gaffes are more perfectly shaped but somehow less aesthetically pleasing than the natural kind. Since Speakes' views on any serious issue are of no conceivable interest, his manufactured gaffes consist entirely of insults to his former colleagues. Ed Meese is an "ideologue." Caspar Weinberger is "a hard-liner, a small man, a whiny type of guy." Pat Buchanan is "blindly reactionary." Don Regan has a big ego. Nancy Reagan is powerful behind the scenes and would "stab you in the back." (Look who Speakes.) Reagan has an "operating style" of "delegating many . . . duties to his subordinates."
All this is deadly Washington cliche' by now. It would be far more interesting if Speakes were to report that Reagan is actually a stickler for detail, Nancy is sweet and sensuous, and Cap Weinberger is really 6-feet-4. But the Washington memoir machine is programmed to produce factoids that can be digested without the aid of irony.
Scribner's has achieved its goal of making page-one news, with the admission that Speakes made up quotes for President Reagan at the 1985 Geneva summit. The conventions of gaffe publishing require Speakes himself to profess this a shocking revelation. (Pretty funny in a book that itself consists of quotes made up for Speakes by someone else.) Yet anyone who has ever opened the mail at a news organization knows that made-up quotes are the heart of a thousand daily press releases. Maybe the president's press operation should be held to a higher standard, although everyone also knows this is a president who needs a script to say "good morning" when a couple of senators drop by his office.
The voices of outrage at Speakes' perfidy include George Reedy, press secretary for President Johnson. Quoted in The Post, Reedy says he would never put out a made-up presidential quote without getting the president to approve it beforehand. Now there's a standard!
Surely you only have to imagine the scene to realize that the summit quotes were made up. Did NBC White House correspondent Chris Wallace ("astonished, flabbergasted") think that Reagan really said to Gorbachev: "Our differences are serious, but so is our commitment to improving understanding"? Yet Wallace, like everyone covering the White House, puts out this sort of pap with a straight face every day.
The real shock is that, according to Speakes, it took two flacks to write and "polish" this gem. "Just because you're southern and you talk slow," Speakes observes, "people think you may think slow and you may not be very bright." No, really, Larry, that's not the reason.