Larry Speakes ventured beyond the `acceptable'

THE questions related to ethical conduct roll on and on. Recently there's been Michael Deaver, Lyn Nofziger, and Edwin Meese. And now it's Larry Speakes. Not Larry Speakes! Not that soft-spoken, sweet-dispositioned Southerner who some observers felt didn't have the hard crust necessary to deal with the White House press. Larry fooled us. He showed he could be tough. Now he is telling us that there were moments when he dealt fast and loose with the truth. So sad. In his new book, ``Speaking Out,'' Mr. Speakes admits that he invented remarks and announced that President Reagan had made them in his Geneva conversations with Mikhail Gorbachev. He says that he wanted to make Ronald Reagan sound better. He claims that he knew what Mr. Reagan was thinking - and that this mirrored the Reagan thinking. But he never checked these quotations with the President before giving them to the press. That press is now furious that it had been ``taken in'' by these made-up statements - these lies. Historians should be furious, too.

Indeed, the next question is to what extent - if any - other press secretaries have gone beyond the ``acceptable'' to the ``unacceptable.'' That is, it has become quite acceptable practice in this city for press secretaries to say how a public official may ``feel'' about a certain subject. The reporter takes this as a kind of shorthand for information that may merely be the press secretary's interpretation of what the public official is thinking and saying. But these are not quotations from that official. Reporters expect and have a right to expect that statements are coming from that official.

The only thing that is possibly positive in Speakes's disclosure is that he disclosed it. He didn't have to. He may believe that on balance the episode may make him look quite important, as a player in summitry. Or he may have thought that there was justification in what he did - in, as he sees it, making the President look good. Perhaps he thought it would be accepted as a helpful act by both the news media and the public.

But he's made just about everyone hopping mad, including his successor at the White House, Marlin Fitzwater. Mr. Fitzwater called Speakes's invention quotations ``an outrage.'' From now on Fitzwater may well get questions like this on important subjects where he is relaying Reagan words: ``Did Reagan actually say this?''

The problem is that it has long been acceptable for a press secretary who works closely with a public figure to provide a quotation for that official which the latter approves. And for years speeches have been written for public officials by speechwriters with the final product going out under that official's name - with no credit to anyone else. Sometimes articles are bylined by public officials that are written, totally, by a staff member.

The Washington Post, after severely criticizing Speakes for ``lying,'' goes on to say: ``The particular kind of falsehood Mr. Speakes admits to telling in his book probably didn't even seem like such a big deal to him because there is so much dissembling in this city as to who said what, and what is authentic.''

The Post goes on to say, ``Lies are told for what the unrepentant liars later say were policy reasons - and all these things are done by people who are the first to complain with enormous indignation if they are even slightly misquoted, whatever that now means.''

But making up quotations, particularly for a president, does very definitely cross the line into the ``unacceptable.'' The question now being raised by the media is, ``Have other press secretaries done this to us?'' Lyndon Johnson's press secretary, George Reedy, says that Mr. Johnson would have torn him apart if he had done anything like that.

Press secretaries are often embattled with the media or with some member of the media. I've heard them roar about stories that they deemed not only wrong and unfair - but fabricated. From this polarized and sometimes angry point of view may come get-back-at-you excesses - deliberately throwing reporters off the track or quotations that are not what they profess to be.

Speakes says now that his made-up quotes may have been a ``wrong'' thing for him to do. But he doesn't seem to see the ethical misdeed that's involved. Instead, he says he sees now that Mr. Gorbachev would have known that the President didn't utter these words - and that the Soviet leader might have then said so, to the damage of the President and summitry.

For some time before Speakes left the White House I was hearing negative comments about the press secretary from reporters not among those who were constantly tangling with him. I hated to hear what they were saying, because I liked Speakes. They were saying he couldn't be trusted.

At the time of the Grenada invasion, the White House press corps was livid because of a quotation Speakes gave a TV newsman who asked if it was true that the Marines were landing there. Speakes called the idea ``preposterous.'' Later when it became clear that he had misled the newsman and the White House press in general, Speakes said he had gotten this information from the National Security Council. Later, in the Iran-contra hearings, Rear Adm. John Poindexter admitted that he was the source of this quote.

Although Speakes was only passing along information that had been passed to him, along with instructions to ``throw that story down hard,'' the press corps never forgave him for leading it astray.

I felt at the time that such misdirection was justified - with the lives of United States Marines perhaps at stake. Many others were incensed by the ``lie.'' I talked to several former presidential press secretaries who thought the misdirection was in order - but that a lie was not justified and a ``no comment'' would have been the way to respond to questions relating to a use-of-troops issue.

So the erosion of press trust in Speakes started with Grenada. From then on it was not unusual for good reporters to say that they just didn't feel Speakes leveled with them. And now Speakes, in his book, tends to confirm their suspicions. So sad, Larry.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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