Larry Speakes

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Larry Speakes
White House Press Secretary
In office
March 30, 1981 – February 1, 1987
PresidentRonald Reagan
Preceded byJames Brady
Succeeded byMarlin Fitzwater (acting)
Personal details
Larry Melvin Speakes

(1939-09-13)September 13, 1939
Cleveland, Mississippi, U.S.
DiedJanuary 10, 2014(2014-01-10) (aged 74)
Cleveland, Mississippi, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic (before 1974)
Republican (1974–2014)
Spouse(s)Laura Crawford
Betty Robinson
Aleta Sindelar
EducationUniversity of Mississippi (BA)

Larry Melvin Speakes (September 13, 1939 – January 10, 2014) was an American journalist and spokesperson who acted as White House Press Secretary under President Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1987. He assumed the role after Press Secretary James Brady was shot on March 30, 1981.

Speakes was a native of northwest Mississippi and attended the University of Mississippi. He worked as a journalist in the 1960s until he became press secretary for Democratic Senator James Eastland in 1968. In this position he also worked as the spokesman for the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

In 1974, he became a Staff Assistant for President Richard Nixon and soon became the Press Secretary to the Special Counsel to the President at the height of the Watergate scandal. Upon Nixon's resignation, President Gerald Ford appointed Speakes to be Assistant Press Secretary to the President. Speakes served as Bob Dole's press secretary during his unsuccessful vice-presidential run with Ford. He worked for the international public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton until joining the Reagan administration.

Early life[edit]

Speakes was born in Cleveland in northwestern Mississippi, which had the nearest hospital to his parents' middle-class home in Merigold in Bolivar County. His father, Harry Earl Speakes, was a banker. His mother was the former Ethlyn Frances Fincher.[1]

Early career[edit]

Mississippi newspaperman[edit]

Speakes received a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi in Oxford. He served as editor of the Oxford Eagle in 1961, and thereafter as managing editor of the Bolivar Commercial in Cleveland from 1962 to 1966.[2] From 1966 to 1968, he worked as general manager and editor of Progress Publishers of Leland, Mississippi.

Senate press secretary[edit]

Speakes headed to Washington, D.C. in 1968, serving as press secretary to Democratic Senator James Eastland of Mississippi. In this capacity, he worked as spokesman for the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary and a coordinator of the senator's reelection campaign in 1972 against the Republican Gil Carmichael.[3][4]

Work in the White House[edit]

Speakes in 1976

The White House tapped Speakes in 1974 as a Staff Assistant and soon became the Press Secretary to the Special Counsel to the President at the height of the Watergate scandal. Upon Nixon's resignation, President Ford appointed Speakes to be Assistant Press Secretary to the President. Speakes served as Bob Dole's press secretary during his unsuccessful vice-presidential run with Ford.

After briefly serving as President Ford's personal press secretary in 1977, Speakes ventured into the private sector as vice president of the international public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton until 1981. After the 1980 presidential campaign, he worked on the staff of the Reagan-Bush team, helping to "straighten out" the press operation, eventually becoming deputy spokesman for the President-elect during the transition. Before the 1988 presidential election, Speakes had considered working for the campaigns of George H. W. Bush, Jack Kemp, and Alexander Haig; however, Bush's people never got back to him, Speakes decided that Kemp was "too hot" (meaning too quick with an answer) for television, and was advised by another Washington insider, "You can do that [join the Haig team] if you want to, but let me tell you one thing: Al Haig ain't going to be President." Speakes has received criticism over the years for his public missives of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which first became present in the United States during his tenure at the White House.[5]

Presidential spokesman[edit]

When James Brady was shot in the assassination attempt on President Reagan on March 30, 1981, he was unable to return to work, though he retained the title of "Press Secretary" for the duration of Reagan's presidency. In Brady's absence, Speakes took over the job of handling the daily press briefings.

On June 17, 1981, Speakes was appointed "Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Press Secretary."

On August 5, 1983, Speakes was appointed "Assistant to the President and Principal Deputy Press Secretary," and remained in that post until January 1987, when he resigned and Marlin Fitzwater took over the role.[6]

On January 30, 1987, he was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Reagan.[7]

Speakes wrote in his 1988 memoir Speaking Out that he twice invented statements himself and attributed them to President Reagan. These statements included ones after the KAL 007 shootdown in 1983 and during the Geneva Summit of 1985. Speakes thought that Gorbachev's remarks at the summit had been highly quotable while Reagan's were "disappointingly lackluster",[8] so he asked his aides to make up some quotes, polished them himself, then issued them to the press as President Reagan's statements. Speakes' revelations, something of a side note in the book, touched off a minor controversy; reporters were annoyed at having been fooled, and Marlin Fitzwater, Speakes's successor, called it a "damn outrage"[8] and complained that they unfairly called into question the veracity of other presidential statements. Speakes said "I was representing his thought if not his words",[8] but also apologized to Reagan, saying he had "provided fodder for those who would aim the cannons of criticism at the President I served loyally for 6 years."[8] Speakes left a job at Merrill Lynch which he had held for a short time as a result of the controversy.[1]

Speakes's comments on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s have been criticized. During press briefings over the course of several years, reporter Lester Kinsolving asked Speakes what response, if any, the administration had to the developing crisis. On most of these occasions, Speakes and the White House press corps responded with homophobic jokes, laughter, and disinterest, responses that have been pointed to as symbols of the Reagan administration's slow response to the epidemic.[9][10][11][12]

Personal life and death[edit]

Speakes was married to the former Laura Christine Crawford (born 1945), whom he met in high school. The two later divorced and had three children.[1]

Speakes died in Cleveland, Mississippi, on January 10, 2014, at the age of 74, of Alzheimer's disease. His body was interred a few hours after his death at North Cleveland Cemetery.[13]


  • Larry Speakes: Speaking Out (New York: Avon Books, 1989) paperback ISBN 978-0380707263


  1. ^ a b c Michael D. Shear (January 10, 2014) Larry Speakes, Public Face of Reagan Era, Dies at 74 New York Times. Retrieved January 11, 2014
  2. ^ Emily Wagster Pettus (January 11, 2014) Former Reagan spokesman Larry Speakes dies at 74 The Seattle Times. Retrieved November 23, 2019
  3. ^ MBJ Staff (January 13, 2014) Speakes, former Reagan press secretary, dies at Delta home Mississippi Business Journal. Retrieved November 23, 2019
  4. ^ Melissa Smith (July 11, 2017) Larry M. Speakes Mississippi Humanities Council. Retrieved November 23, 2019
  5. ^ Lopez, German (December 2015). "The Reagan administration's unbelievable response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic". VOX. VOX. Retrieved June 22, 2021.
  6. ^ "Letter Accepting the Resignation of Larry M. Speakes as Assistant to the President and Principal Deputy Press Secretary".
  7. ^ "Announcement of the Presentation of the Presidential Citizens Medal to Larry M. Speakes".
  8. ^ a b c d Boller, Jr., Paul F.; George, John (1989). They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505541-1.
  9. ^ Geidner, Chris (December 2, 2013). "13 Times The Reagan White House Press Briefing Erupted With Laughter Over AIDS". BuzzFeed. Retrieved March 7, 2016.
  10. ^ Lawson, Richard (December 1, 2015). "The Reagan Administration's Unearthed Response to the AIDS Crisis Is Chilling". Vanity Fair. Retrieved March 13, 2017.
  11. ^ Gibson, Caitlin (December 1, 2015). "A disturbing new glimpse at the Reagan administration's indifference to AIDS". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 12, 2019.
  12. ^ Silberman, Steve (December 7, 2016). "The unlikely coalition that put the brakes on Aids". Financial Times. Retrieved March 12, 2019.
  13. ^ Greg Henderson (January 10, 2014) Former Reagan White House Spokesman Larry Speakes Dies NPR. Retrieved November 23, 2019

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by White House Press Secretary

Succeeded by