Former White House spokesman Larry Speakes, in memoirs published this week, recounts two incidents in which he manufactured quotes and attributed them to President Reagan, including a widely reported statement issued when Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev held their historic first meeting in Geneva in 1985.
Speakes, who became chief spokesman for Reagan when James S. Brady was shot in 1981, recounts in his book “Speaking Out” that he made up the quotes because he was fearful of the Soviet “communications juggernaut” at Geneva.
Noting that Gorbachev had made several quotable statements about Soviet desires for peace, whereas Reagan said little, Speakes writes that he instructed press aide Mark Weinberg “to draft some quotes for the President.”
“I polished the quotes and told the press that, while the two leaders stood together at the end of one session, the President said to Gorbachev: ‘There is much that divides us, but I believe the world breathes easier because we are talking here together.’ ”
In an interview Monday, Speakes said making up presidential quotes “is not lying. . . . When you’re a press secretary, you develop a bond of understanding with the President so that you think like the President. . . . I knew those quotes were the way he felt.”
In the book, Speakes says he felt that Gorbachev was besting Reagan in the public relations battle that November during the summit, Reagan’s first session with Soviet leaders in almost five years in office.
After a first term in which Reagan had set a confrontational tone in U.S.-Soviet relations, referring originally to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire,” the White House was aiming to lay groundwork for arms-control agreements in the President’s second term.
Another Reagan quote from that summit that Speakes said “we manufactured that received extensive play in the press was: ‘Our differences are serious, but so is our commitment to improving understanding.’ ”
In the book, Speakes recounts the extensive play given both quotes on television, particularly from CBS, NBC White House correspondent Chris Wallace and print journalists.
Was ‘Clearly Wrong’
He adds, however, that in retrospect, it was “clearly wrong to take such liberties” because the Soviets could have said that Reagan had said no such things.
“Luckily, the Russians did not dispute the quotes, and I had been able to spruce up the President’s image by taking a bit of liberty with my PR man’s license,” Speakes concludes.
Wallace, in an interview, said he was “astonished, flabbergasted” that he and others had been given manufactured words as actual Reagan utterances. “These are two crucial events in the history of Reagan’s presidency,” he said. “I don’t think it should be naive of us to assume that, when the press secretary quotes the President, the President said the words.”
The other incident recounted in detail in the book involved Reagan’s sessions with his Cabinet and congressional leaders after a Soviet fighter plane shot down a Korean Air Lines passenger jetliner in 1983. Reagan, who had been in Santa Barbara, at the time, reluctantly accepted advice that he cut short his vacation and return here to handle the crisis.
At the sessions, Speakes recounts that Secretary of State George P. Shultz and others offerred suggestions on retaliation and characterized the incident as a disaster for the Soviets in which the entire world was on one side and the Soviets on the other.
Used Shultz’s Words
Speakes says he decided to take Shultz’s words and put them in Reagan’s mouth. “Since the President had had almost nothing to say during the . . . meetings, I made presidential quotes out of Shultz’s comments . . . " he writes, adding: “My decision to put Shultz’s words in Reagan’s mouth played well, and neither of them complained.”
Besides recounting his version of numerous events in the Reagan presidency, Speakes also discusses media-Administration relationships and repeatedly defends what he called his “reputation for truth.”