Let's hear it for Larry Speakes
Washington — Larry Speakes is doing a good job in Jim Brady's absence. That, at any rate, is this reporter's judgment. The view of the journalists covering the White House is not easily read. And if certainly isn't monolithic. Some of the more outspoken reporters say that Speakes, while agreeable enough, simply isn't a strong enough personality or that he just doesn't have sufficient access to the President.
But before getting to this criticism let's take a look at the difficult assignment handed to Speakes when Brady was sidelined. Speakes was to be a temporary replacement. Yet as time has gone on he has become the de facto press secretary. Even so -- and he often reminds reporters of this -- he is not taking over Brady's job but simply filling in till the boss comes back.
Brady, despite a recent setback, is still mending in ways that have astounded the doctors. White House chief of staff Jim Baker says that he and the President feel that it was the prayers of the American people which helped Brady pull through the damage from the would-be assassin's bullet and have brought him on the road to recovery. But doctors tell White House aides that Brady still has some distance to go before he can take over his old job, "perhaps," as one aide said, "not until the end of the year."
"But," this aide went on, "one of the first things the doctors told us was that if was important for Brady's morale that his job be left open for him. And that's what we're doing."
So Speakes, a very considerate man, clearly is trying to do nothing that would cause Brady or anyone else, including the press, to believe that he wants to edge his old friend out of a job.
This is proper. But how do you play this role and still come through to the press as a man of strength, as someone fully in charge? How can you act as though you are in command when you are saying by every word and action that you aren't in command -- that you are merely filling in?
It isn't easy. But Speakes is doing it right. If he is weakening the job a bit in deferring to Brady, he is not only responding to what the President and Jim Baker want him to do; he is also tuned in to what the American people would want him to do.
There is a lot of affection out there for Jim Brady. Speakes knows this. But he isn't responding to his bosses or the public when he acts like a gentleman in these circumstances. Speakes is simply a very nice guy. And that is an assertion that will get you something near unanimous agreement among those who work with him, including the press.
So much for Speakes's alleged lack of strength. His reticence to use it is clear. Whether he basically has the quality for the demanding job or not, or to what degree he has it, is not subject to a definitive evaluation. My guess is that he has it. It comes through at this point as a kind of sweet stubbornness, an unwillingness to hone an answer to the point where it's inaccurate or to respond when he isn't confident he is reflecting the President's view.
Here, of course, is where much of the press criticism of Speakers lies: that he talks a lot with Jim Baker and others close to the President but not enough with the President himself.
This may be an underlying weakness in this administration. But it applied to Brady even before Speakes came in. The strongest press secretaries, like Jody Powell and Jim Hagerty, were close to the Presidents they served. And the press likes it when the press secretary is well tuned in to the president's thinking -- and that powerful.
But how "tight in" should a press secretary be to a president? Powell was almost like a son to President Carter. And he was a trusted presidential associate whose access was so complete and frequent that he was viewed as one of the most influential people in Carter's administration.
One former Carter foreign-policy adviser speaks glowingly of Powell. He commented the other day the Powell's advise to the President on foreign affairs was usually very good. "In fact, he often sided with me."
In any event, Larry Speakes is being very correct, relatively effective, and always agreeable as he continues to make clear he is only a temporary fill-in for Jim Brady.