Larry Speakes, former Reagan press secretary, dies

Larry Speakes, who became President Ronald Reagan's acting press secretary in 1981, and served in the position for six years, died Friday in his sleep at his Mississippi home. Speakes had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

Ira Schwarz/AP/File
President Reagan, flanked by Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes, talks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington, in September 1984. Speakes, who spent six years as acting press secretary for President Reagan, died Friday in his native Mississippi. He was 74.

Larry Speakes, who spent six years as acting press secretary for President Ronald Reagan, died Friday in his native Mississippi. He was 74.

Speakes died at home in Cleveland, Miss., where he had lived the past several years, said Bolivar County Coroner Nate Brown. Brown said Speakes had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

"He died in his sleep and it was a natural death," Brown said.

Speakes was buried in North Cleveland Cemetery during a private service Friday morning, a few hours after dying, said Kenny Williams of Cleveland Funeral Home.

Speakes became Reagan's acting spokesman after Press Secretary James Brady was wounded during an assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981.

In a statement issued from Los Angeles, former first lady Nancy Reagan said that she was "saddened to learn about Larry, who served Ronnie with great loyalty in one of the toughest jobs in the White House."

"He stepped up in very difficult circumstances and was an articulate and respected spokesman day in and day out, including some very historically significant moments," Reagan said. "It is a source of special sadness to know he suffered from Alzheimer's disease." Ronald Reagan died in 2004 after a 10-year battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Republican Haley Barbour, who served as Mississippi governor from 2004 to 2012, was political director of the Reagan White House when Speakes worked there. He said Friday that it wasn't unusual to have tension between the political office and the press office, but he and Speakes had a good working relationship.

Barbour said that within the Reagan administration, people generally admired Speakes' handling of the press, although Speakes could be abrupt.

"Sometimes, that meant reporters didn't get everything they wanted, and sometimes it meant they didn't get anything," Barbour said Friday. "But, Larry knew who he worked for."

Peter Roussel, who worked with Speakes in the Ford and Reagan press offices, said Speakes conducted more than 2,000 press briefings. "Larry set high performance standards for himself and for those who worked for him," Roussel said.

Dennis Brack, a photographer who has covered the White House for the Black Star photo agency since the 1960s, said Speakes had a good relationship with photographers during the years when Reagan, a former actor, was president.

But when photographers took pictures of President Gerald Ford falling down the steps of Air Force One in Austria in 1976, Speakes complained that the press was determined to make the president "look like a klutz," said Brack, author of "Presidential Picture Stories: Behind the Cameras at the White House," published in December.

Weeks after leaving his White House job in 1987, Speakes said during a speech at East Texas State University that he often thought about the day Reagan, Brady and two others were wounded when John Hinckley Jr. opened fire.

"Shortly before the president left that day to go the Hilton Hotel to make a speech, I said to Jim, 'Do you want to go with the president, or would you like me to go?' And he said, 'I believe I'll go,'" Speakes said. "And had it not been in that one split second, I would have been exactly where Jim Brady was at that moment an hour or so later. ... It's not a day goes by that I don't think about that."

After leaving the White House, Speakes worked for Merrill Lynch in New York. Speakes left the Merrill Lynch job after he wrote in his memoir, "Speaking Out," that he had fabricated quotes for President Reagan while working for him.

He returned to Washington in 1988 and worked in public relations for Northern Telecom and the U. S. Postal Service, retiring in 2008.

Speakes grew up in Merigold, Miss., and graduated from the University of Mississippi. He worked for two Mississippi newspapers, the Oxford Eagle and the Bolivar Commercial, before going to Washington in 1968 as press secretary for U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland, D-Miss.

In 1974, Speakes worked as press secretary for the special counsel to President Richard Nixon during the Watergate hearings. After Nixon resigned, Speakesbecame assistant press secretary for President Gerald Ford.

Speakes worked as press secretary for Ford's vice presidential running mate, Bob Dole, during the 1976 campaign. After Democrat Jimmy Carter won the election, he moved to the Hill and Knowlton public relations firm in Washington. Speakes worked for Reagan's transition team after Reagan won the 1980 election, then became deputy press secretary under Brady.

Speakes is survived by a daughter, Sandy Speakes Huerta of Cleveland, Miss; sons Scott Speakes of Cleveland, Miss., and Jeremy Speakes of Clifton, Va.; six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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