“You don’t tell us how to stage the news, and we don’t tell you how to cover it.”
Perched behind an elevated lectern, President Reagan’s press spokesman, Larry Speakes, peers down at the standing-room-only crowd of reporters in the White House briefing room. Speakes has come to expect impertinence in these daily interrogation sessions, but after being grilled relentlessly for five days about the President’s cancer surgery, his patience is wearing thin.
“Look, the President is doing extremely well, and I cannot help you make any more controversy,” says Speakes, 45, sidestepping questions about why Reagan’s children had not visited their ailing father at the hospital. “I’m just not going to play those games with you.”
“You’re very tired, Larry,” interjects UPI correspondent Helen Thomas, unofficial dean of the White House press corps.
“I’m not tired,” snaps Speakes. “I’m just tired of you people.”
Speakes’ relationship with the White House press corps has never been the essence of harmony, but that is expected. In addition to spreading good news for the Administration, one of his primary functions has always been to hold skeptical and sometimes rowdy reporters at bay. “When there is an embarrassing subject or a tough issue for the President, Larry is very clever at finding ways of deflating questions or turning them aside,” says NBC correspondent Chris Wallace. But with the Great Communicator temporarily sidelined, Speakes has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight as the Administration’s principal front man. The responsibility has not visibly mellowed him.
“Speakes has always had a bad habit of trying to belittle questioners when he can get away with it,” says ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson. “Now that technique seems to be one of his main arrows.” Lesley Stahl of CBS agrees. “Larry is much more hostile to us than he used to be,” she says. “In the beginning he sometimes picked on women or on men who worked for small news organizations. Now he does it to everybody.”
Speakes sees no need to apologize. “There are times the press needs to be told when it oversteps its bounds,” he says. “This has been the most thoroughly discussed presidential illness in history, and we have been truthful and forthcoming in presenting the facts. But if members of the press think that they can drive us to do anything that is beyond our standards of ethics and taste, they are wrong. Just like anyone else, the President has certain rights of privacy.”
Feet upon the desk in his White House office, one eye on television correspondents taping their afternoon stand-ups on the North Lawn, Speakes slips out of his role as guardian of the gospel according to Ronald Reagan and reflects on a career in which he takes satisfaction. “Everything I’ve always wanted for myself has come true,” he says. A banker’s son raised in Merigold, Miss. (pop. 700), Speakes was graduated from Ole Miss in 1961 and worked for several years as an editor at small weekly newspapers. A job as press secretary to Democratic Sen. James O. Eastland brought Speakes to Washington in 1968, which left him with a serious case of Potomac fever. “When Nixon took office I looked at his press secretary, Ron Ziegler, who is several months older than I am, and I thought, ‘Golly, it’s great to work for a United States Senator, but wouldn’t it be the ultimate to work in the White House?’ ”
In 1974 Speakes was assigned as press secretary to Nixon’s Watergate lawyer and subsequently slid smoothly into a job as a deputy in President Ford’s press office. Working for a private public relations firm during the Carter years, Speakes shopped around for a candidate who might take him back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “I talked with Jack Kemp, Al Haig and George Bush, but nothing happened. Then, all of a sudden, I found myself in the Reagan campaign as a liaison to President Ford. A couple of weeks after the election I called Jim Brady, who was just beginning to organize the new White House press office. He said, ‘Be here in the morning. We start at 7 a.m.’ ”
Speakes sits upright and lowers his voice as he recalls a moment in 1981 when Brady seemed distracted after conducting the regular midday briefing. On the agenda that afternoon was an appearance by President Reagan at the Washington Hilton.
“Do you want me to go to this thing with the President today?” Speakes asked.
“No,” Brady replied. “I’ll go.”
“You know,” he says, “not a day goes by when I don’t think of that.”
Cut down by John Hinckley’s bullets that day, Brady lost about 20 percent of his frontal brain tissue in surgery and still suffers partial paralysis of his left side. At the President’s insistence, he continues to hold the title of White House Press Secretary, even though the responsibilities of the job have fallen to Speakes. “Jim should keep the title as long as it is important to him,” says Speakes. “I don’t think having the word deputy in front of my name diminishes my credibility as the President’s spokesman.”
In fact Speakes’ principal handicap has been the perception that he is little more than a White House factotum. Ironically, Speakes’ initial lack of stature seemed nicely suited to the Administration’s purposes. “No one really wanted a strong press secretary,” says one former Reagan aide. “Basically all they wanted was someone who would go out and repeat what he had been told.”
White House correspondents, however, have sometimes felt Speakes was too much the outsider to do his job well. “When Larry is informed, he can be very helpful,” says UPI correspondent Norm Sandler. “The problem comes when he is cut out of the loop at the White House. Then it is difficult for us as well as him.”
Sandler and other White House correspondents consider the 1983 Grenada invasion as Speakes’ darkest hour. The day before American troops stormed the island, CBS got wind of a military buildup in the Caribbean, and correspondent Bill Plante asked Speakes whether an invasion of Grenada was being planned. On instructions from National Security Council officials, Speakes replied curtly, “Preposterous.”
“Grenada revealed not only the arrogance of this Administration toward the press, but also how little consideration they gave Larry,” says one former White House official. “It would have been perfectly appropriate to say ‘No comment’ or dodge the issue some other way. Instead it was clear they didn’t trust Larry enough to bring him in. It was clear to Speakes as well. “I did not like the way I was treated,” he says. “Day in and day out for several weeks I had to take an awful lot of heat for it from the press. But I don’t think it will happen again.”
Since Donald Regan took over as chief of staff earlier this year, Speakes’ access to senior presidential aides has improved significantly. “Regan may be the ultimate guy to work for as far as getting the whole story,” says Speakes. “These days I go to sensitive meetings where any off-key word from me to the press could screw things up. But when I leave, Regan will just say, ‘Tell me how you come out.’ ”
During the recent Beirut hostage crisis, Speakes was not only well-briefed, he was used by the Administration to put pressure on Lebanese Shi’ite leader Nabih Berri. “We knew Berri was reading every word I said, as were the Syrians and Soviets,” says Speakes. “So we were conducting diplomacy, in effect, by sending messages directly from the White House podium.”
Speakes had barely caught his breath following the hostage drama when he was plunged into the media turmoil surrounding the President’s cancer surgery. Most reporters credit him with keeping exceptionally well-informed throughout the President’s hospitalization. He was the only White House official present when doctors told Mrs. Reagan her husband had cancer. “I’ve been through a lot of these kinds of crises, and Speakes has had more access during this one than at almost any other time I can remember,” says Washington Post correspondent David Hoffman. “It may be that we don’t yet know the full medical story of this thing, but Larry was pretty diligent in taking good notes and making doctors available to us immediately following the operations.” Still Speakes showed a lack of finesse at times, once suggesting that the correspondents were actually unhappy that the President’s condition seemed to be improving.
It is the curse of every White House press spokesman that he must answer to one master while serving another. “In this job you are always just one step away from being on the street, because the screwup potential is so high,” explains Speakes. “Every day, with every word, there is an opportunity to put your foot in your mouth so badly that you would be of no further use. This may sound a little bit boastful, but for someone who has to go out for an hour each day and answer questions from the toughest reporters in Washington, it’s a pretty good accomplishment not to have made a major blunder.”
Indeed. Despite his often acrimonious exchanges with the press, the simple fact of Speakes’ survival has earned him the grudging respect of most White House reporters. “He has shown an ability to roll with the punches,” says Washington Post correspondent Lou Cannon. “He may not be a genius. But, like Reagan, he is a lot smarter than people think.”