The man who'll explain the President at Geneva

PRESIDENT Reagan isn't the only one boning up for the summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev. His chief press spokesman, Larry Speakes, is preparing for what may be the most important event of his White House career. The eyes of the world will focus on the two superpower leaders. But what goes out over television and into the newspapers about what the President does, says, and thinks will depend in large part on the round-faced, smiling White House deputy press secretary. It is a responsibility the former newspaperman from Mississippi obviously relishes.

The summit is another opportunity to help orchesrate a massive news media extravaganza, putting Ronald Reagan at the center of world attention.

``We've set about to work with others in the White House to devise an appropriate public diplomacy package,'' Mr. Speakes says. ``This one will be critical. Every word we speak is read in Moscow almost instantly.''

The White House is acutely conscious of the new style in the Kremlin. ``What makes this meeting more momentous for us is that . . . we're dealing with a new Soviet public relations effort. The days of banging the shoe on the table or of standard anticapitalist, anti-US rhetoric have changed,'' Speakes says. ``The Soviets have become very sophisticated.''

So has Larry Speakes -- at the job of fencing and sparring with the journalists who regularly cover the White House.

On many counts, White House reporters give Speakes a good review. He is better informed in the second term, because of increased access to the President. When he has information the White House is willing to give out, he handles himself well. He is becoming more outspoken on foreign policy (something that has set the State Department's teeth on edge).

``He was really thrown into a spot out of the blue when Brady was shot,'' says veteran United Press International reporter Helen Thomas, referring to the wounding of press secretary James Brady at the time of the 1981 attempt on Reagan's life. ``He's gained a lot of confidence since then. Now he has access and he's feeling his oats.''

Speakes is also credited with having the political instincts crucial to survival at the White House. ``Larry's probably the best bureaucratic infighter in the White House,'' says Robert Timberg of the Baltimore Sun. ``He's managed to make himself one of the elite, and therefore he's more tuned in and has more impact on things. Reporters may not like him personally and may not like what he does, but for this President he's very good.''

Journalists are frustrated, however, by the combative style and show-biz atmosphere that have evolved in the press briefing room. By contrast with the civil briefings at, say, the State Department (a ``gentleman's club,'' Speakes calls it), the twice-daily White House briefings are in large part theater -- a constant jabbing and parrying that often reduces to exchanges of insults as well as witty banter.

Recently Speakes was asked about a Washington Post report that the President had written to Mr. Gorbachev outlining a new US arms proposal -- the day before this was announced officially. A testy dialogue ensued:

Reporter: What is the harm of our knowing that the President sent a letter to Gorbachev?

Speakes: Once again, when we get ready to make these announcements, we will make them. And you will know what they are. You're ticked off because. . . .

Reporter: Because I go with your statements, I'm ticked off. . . .

Speakes: If you would read the Washington Post story and look at the CBS News report, you would see a lot of probablys and maybes. You're ticked off because you got scooped. If you got scooped, you got scooped. You've just gotta eat it. You're trying to make me say something just to get you up to speed because you're one cycle behind.

Reporter: . . . your credibility is sinking fast.

Speakes: No, ma'am. Why is my credibility sinking? Don't start that game again on me.

The deputy press secretary -- Jim Brady remains the official press secretary -- acknowledges that the briefings are a ``three-ring circus'' when he does not have information. ``We often call it the best free show in town,'' he quips. ``I wish it weren't the old game of `how can we make him say what he doesn't want to say?' or `gotcha.' I think this attitude ebbs and flows in direct proportion to the amount of information you want to give. If we have a subject we want to talk about, then the briefings a re pretty civil.''

Does Speakes contribute to the baiting? ``Yeah, I think so,'' he says. ``When I'm not getting information, my attitude is by nature more defensive . . . and you win points by coming back.''

Experienced Washington reporters question whether this kind of gamesmanship serves Reagan or the press well. They also wish Speakes would work harder to obtain information.

Comments Jack Nelson, bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times: ``He doesn't have anywhere near the access that [President Carter's spokesman Jody] Powell had, or the kind of sessions where he'd try to explain policy. . . . They send him out to do a job and he does what he's told. Maybe people around him think that serves them well. But the public? That's another question.''

Reporters may complain that the White House caters to this town's two dailies -- the Washington Post and the Washington Times -- as well as the TV networks and newsmagazines. But the White House does not hide that it plays to the newsmakers with the largest audience, above all, television.

``When you get down to it, PR people deal in target audiences,'' said Speakes in his comfortably appointed office in the West Wing of the White House. ``When you deal with what our target audience is, it's the dozen or so people who are the most influential in the White House briefing room. Clearly that's the network and major newspapers in Washington . . . because that's where people get their information.''

How would he evaluate the White House press corps? It is a ``good'' press corp that is tough when it needs to be and covers the White House fairly, Speakes says. But he is irritated by its focus on the ``little picture.''

``Too often they are looking through the wrong end of the telescope and not on the big picture,'' he remarks. Rejecting the view that reporters do not have enough access to the President, Speakes says the Reagan White House does not control the news any more than any other White House and resembles any other institution in trying to put the best face on things.

Speakes first came to Washington in 1968 as press secretary to then-Sen. James Eastland (D) of Mississippi. He later worked for President Nixon's Watergate lawyer and also for President Ford. Once a newsman in Mississippi, Speakes has risen to a job that he long wanted and that visibly exhilarates him.

``You always feel like you're doing something important -- whether you're Xeroxing a speech or you're making a statement on US-Soviet relations,'' he says.

His worst hour came during the invasion of Grenada, when he was not clued in by his superiors. When queried about reports of an invasion, he said, ``Preposterous!''

But the press spokesman bristles ``more than anything'' at a charge that he is lying. ``The only thing a government spokesman has is the truth,'' he says, ``and if he ever lies or misleads, then he's out of business.''

A tireless worker who puts in 12-hour days, occasionally breaking his day with a jog, Speakes hopes to last the full two terms as press spokesman, though he concedes that ``the screw-up potential in this business is great.'' Afterward, he hopes to run a good-size daily newspaper. For the moment his thoughts are on Geneva.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.