Larry Speakes dies at 74

Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes stands behind President Reagan on the South Lawn of the White House in 1984. Speakes, 74, died Friday at his home in Mississippi. (Associated Press / September 2, 1984)

Larry Speakes, who strained to mediate between a hungry press corps and a media-distrustful White House during six years as President Reagan's press secretary, has died. He was 74.

Speakes died in his sleep Friday at his home in Cleveland, Miss. He had Alzheimer's disease, according to Bolivar County Coroner Nate Brown.

After leaving the White House, Speakes ignited a media firestorm when he wrote in his 1988 memoir "Speaking Out" that he had fed made-up quotes to reporters to make Reagan look better.

Speakes became Reagan's acting spokesman after Press Secretary James Brady was injured during an assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981. His first steps were unsteady. Asked at a news conference who would run the government if Reagan underwent surgery before Vice President George H.W. Bush had returned to Washington from a trip, Speakes replied, "I cannot answer that question at this time."

That reply angered Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who walked into the briefing room to make the memorable — and constitutionally inaccurate — claim, "As of now, I am in control here in the White House, pending the return of the vice president and in close touch with him."

While his title remained deputy press secretary, out of deference to the injured Brady, Speakes became the public face of the administration.

"When Speakes was informed, he could be helpful," Helen Thomas, the longtime White House correspondent for United Press International, wrote in her 2000 memoir. "When he was cut out of the loop, what resulted could be embarrassing and infuriating. As I once told him, 'You didn't tell a lie, but you left a big hole in the truth.'"

Reagan and his inner circle kept Speakes in the dark about the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983 and made no arrangements for reporters to cover it. Speakes said being "lied to" by Reagan and his team on that occasion was the low point of his tenure.

His biggest contretemps came with the release of his memoir published one year after his 1987 departure from the White House.

In it, Speakes disclosed that at the 1985 summit in Geneva, the remarks he said Reagan had uttered to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were, in fact, made up by him and an aide. Those purported comments had been widely reported. They included, "There is much that divides us, but I believe the world breathes easier because we are talking here together."

Speakes said he drafted and disseminated the made-up quotes because he feared the Americans were losing the public-relations battle to their Soviet counterparts. He also divulged that he had manufactured a quote attributed to Reagan after a Soviet fighter plane shot down a Korean Air Lines passenger jet in 1983.

"In retrospect, it was clearly wrong to take such liberties," Speakes wrote.

The disclosures in Speakes' book created an uproar, and he was forced to quit as senior vice president for communications for Merrill Lynch & Co.

Speakes was born Sept. 13, 1939, in Cleveland, Miss., and studied journalism at the University of Mississippi. He arrived in Washington in 1968 as press secretary for Sen. James O. Eastland (D-Miss.).

In 1974, Speakes worked as press secretary for the special counsel to President Nixon during the Watergate hearings. After Nixon resigned, Speakes became assistant press secretary for President Ford.

Speakes worked as press secretary for Ford's vice presidential running mate, Bob Dole, during the 1976 campaign. After Democrat Jimmy Carter won the election, he moved to the Hill and Knowlton public relations firm in Washington. Speakes worked for Reagan's transition team after Reagan won the 1980 election, then became deputy press secretary under Brady.

After resigning from Merrill Lynch in 1988, Speakes worked in public relations for Northern Telecom and the U.S. Postal Service, retiring in 2008.

The Washington Post reported in 2009 that Speakes had Alzheimer's disease and that his third wife was battling two of his children over who should care for him and his estate.

Besides his wife, Aleta, he is survived by three children from his first two marriages, both of which ended in divorce, along with six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

news.obits@latimes.com