Reagan's 'nice guy' twins: Gergen and Speakes
Washington — There is a growing consensus among the news media that, until recently, they have been too soft on the President. The reasons reporters suggest:
The extension of the presidential honeymoon because of the assassination attempt; the President's personable ways and his relative friendliness to the press; and those two ''nice guys'' who deal daily with the press, David Gergen and Larry Speakes.
Gergen is particularly valuable to the news magazines and those newspapers that seek analysis of what the President is doing and indications of trends. But reporters who are mainly after the news do not find Gergen too helpful.
''He doesn't answer my calls,'' said one such newsman. ''I find that he is always favoring television - always knocking on their door with ideas.'' Another reporter, standing by, agreed: ''He doesn't answer my calls either.''
Speakes appeals more to the general run of reporters, and particularly to the daily print media. ''I find him very helpful,'' said one reporter. ''He stonewalls some. But I think he tells us all he can.''
After the sidelining of press secretary James Brady, Speakes as the deputy press secretary, and Gergen, as director of communications, at first worked pretty much as equals. But, as time has gone on, Gergen has emerged as a little more equal than his associate simply because he has -- or is thought to have -- more access to the President and the top troika of White House advisers, Messrs. Baker, Meese, and Deaver.
There is talk of a falling-out between Gergen and Speakes because of the rivalry inevitably stemming from this double-spokesman approach. Some reporters speak of the ''tension'' between the two. But, considering how often they are on potential collision course, these amiable, secure people keep their difficult relationship workably harmonious.
Gergen is spoken of approvingly by reporters as ''scholarly,'' ''reflective, '' ''unflappable.'' He is mainly faulted for being wordy, for, as one reporter put it, ''going on at great length, much too long, in an effort to explain something.''
Speakes gets high marks for his beguiling ways and his ability to turn away wrath. He may be even better than Gergen at keeping tempers in check at the daily press briefings.
It is generally felt that Jody Powell was a better press secretary than the current twosome. He had the advantage of being part of the presidential policymaking team -- or at least was so perceived -- while Gergen and Speakes are not.
''So,'' one long-time presidential watcher here says, ''when Powell told us something, we knew that this was Carter talking. With Gergen and Speakes we can't expect to get as much. They're basically a step removed from Reagan. They take their orders from the troika.''
Another reporter said he agreed by and large but added: ''I think the press secretary should be a spokesman -- not a part of the policymaking process. So I prefer Gergen and Speakes and the role they are playing to Powell.''
Powell, now a columnist, sat in with a group of journalists at breakfast the other morning when Gergen was the guest. ''He did a good job,'' said Powell afterward. ''He handled himself well.''
At one point Powell asked Gergen to explain how Reagan was briefed for a press conference. Gergen obliged, and Powell later said that Carter was prepared in much the same manner -- with briefing papers on subjects that might come up. ''In addition,'' he said, ''we at times supplied some quotes of what some previous presidents had said on these same subjects.''
Powell, in the estimate of the White House press, is one of the best press secretaries of all time, ranking with Bill Moyers and Jim Hagerty.
Gergen and Speakes? They are generally considered by their critics in the media to be performing reasonably well, considering that the splitting of such an assignment contains some unavoidable problems.
''Remember,'' one highly respected newsman commented, ''with the economy in such bad shape, we are going through a period of stress -- one in which tensions between the press and the President are building. Yet these two very amiable nice guys, Gergen and Speakes, are doing quite a good job in keeping the temperature down.