Larry Speakes, Former Reagan Spokesman, Dead At 74

Larry Speakes

Larry Speakes, who became the face of the Reagan Administration in the wake of James Brady’s near-fatal wounding during the attempting assassination of President Reagan in 1981, has died at the age of 74:

WASHINGTON — Larry Speakes, who became the public face of Ronald Reagan’s presidency when a would-be assassin’s bullet gravely wounded his boss, press secretary James Brady, died Friday in his native Mississippi. He was 74.

Dr. Nate Brown, the coroner for Bolivar County, Miss., said Mr. Speakes, who had Alzheimer’s disease, died at his home in Cleveland, Miss.

A Southerner who started many days in his White House office by listening to Mozart for what he said was its calming influence, Mr. Speakes served as acting White House press secretary from 1981 to 1987, parrying the increasingly adversarial queries from the press along the way. His nickname among friends was “the Mississippi catfish,” a fish that stings when mishandled.

He worked in the West Wing in a pre-Internet era, when the tense exchanges with reporters took place twice a day and deadlines were geared toward the morning papers and the networks’ nightly news programs. He was regarded as having a straightforward but sometimes acerbic style by journalists who bristled at the administration’s attempts to manage the news.

Mr. Speakes made news himself in 1988, after he left the White House, when he published a memoir in which he said that as spokesman he had attributed two quotations to Reagan that the president did not say, and later told him about it. The revelations infuriated members of the administration, and Reagan said he did not know of the quotations until Mr. Speakes’ book, “Speaking Out,” was published.

During the ensuing furor, Mr. Speakes resigned from his job as senior vice president for communications at Merrill Lynch. He later told The Washington Post that he had been “overzealous” and that he had “wronged President Reagan.”

But he did not apologize. “The truth never requires apology,” he told The Post.

When he was in the White House, some journalists questioned whether Mr. Speakes had the access necessary to give him credibility. At times, his job seemed less about communicating policy than handling television personalities like Sam Donaldson of ABC News, who became famous for the questions he shouted at the president from the airport tarmac or White House rope line.

Mr. Speakes also fought battles inside the White House with presidential advisers as they all struggled for influence and access to Reagan.


Larry Melvin Speakes was born on Sept. 13, 1939, at a hospital in Cleveland, Miss., that, he wrote in “Speaking Out,” was the closest to his parents’ home in Merigold, Miss.

He was the son of Harry Earl Speakes and the former Ethlyn Frances Fincher. His father was a banker in Merigold, and Mr. Speakes called himself “as middle class as you could get,” marrying his high-school sweetheart before attending the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

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

He worked for small-town newspapers in Mississippi before starting his political career in the late 1960s as press secretary for Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi. That led to jobs at the White House and then as a spokesman for President Richard M. Nixon’s Watergate lawyer. He later worked for President Gerald R. Ford and Senator Bob Dole before getting the call from Mr. Brady to be his deputy after Mr. Reagan’s victory.

After the shooting, Mr. Speakes took over Mr. Brady’s duties, though he never got the title of press secretary, out of respect for his wounded colleague. “As long as it’s important to Jim, the title is his,” he told a reporter for The New York Times in 1985.

As Reagan increasingly ran into political trouble — including an arms-for-hostages deal with Iran — it was Mr. Speakes who was often called upon to deflect the attacks.

Once, when a reporter asked him whether the United States would seek to invade the island nation of Grenada, Mr. Speakes said — on the advice of an official at the National Security Council — that the idea was “preposterous.” The invasion took place the next day, and Mr. Speakes later acknowledged that he had learned about the assault after it had begun.

Speakes was replaced by Marlin Fitzwater, who also did not take the formal title “Press Secretary” out of deference to Jim Brady although he did take on that title when President George H.W. Bush asked him to stay in his position after the 1988. Fitzwater remained Bush’s Press Secretary for all four years of his time in office.






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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    His nickname among friends was “the Mississippi catfish,” a fish that stings when mishandled.

    Just to clarify what the author is confused about, there is no such species as a “Mississippi catfish” and all catfish can put the hurt on you thru spines located in the pectoral and dorsal fins.

    “These spines again don’t “sting” and you can touch them without any pain occurring, the pain and injury occurs when these spines puncture the skin. The spines contained in the dorsal and pectoral fin contain a venom that causes edema (swelling) and is also hemolytic (causes increased blood flow in the area of the injury) if these spines puncture the skin.”

    Thus ends today’s lesson in HillBillyism.

  2. C. Clavin says:
  3. ernieyeball says:

    @C. Clavin: What do you expect from the mouthpiece for this guy…

    Reagan was involved in high-profile conflicts with the protest movements of the era. On May 15, 1969, during the People’s Park protests at UC Berkeley, Reagan sent the California Highway Patrol and other officers to quell the protests, in an incident that became known as “Bloody Thursday”, resulting in the death of student James Rector and the blinding of carpenter Alan Blanchard.[84][85] Reagan then called out 2,200 state National Guard troops to occupy the city of Berkeley for two weeks to crack down on the protesters.[84] A year after “Bloody Thursday”, Reagan responded to questions about campus protest movements saying, “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.”[86]…
    When the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst in Berkeley and demanded the distribution of food to the poor, Reagan joked, “It’s just too bad we can’t have an epidemic of botulism.”

  4. I got to know Larry Speakes a bit late in life. Despite what the classless commentating louts on this blog may want to claim or infer, Speakes was a fine man, an incredibly decent human being and a first-rate act. May he rest in peace.

  5. C. Clavin says:

    @Let’s Be Free:
    Don’t know the man…can only judge him by his record.
    See link above.

  6. Pinky says:

    I don’t understand the job of White House Press Secretary. Is he supposed to have answers to everything that the press might ask him? The executive branch is big. No one can speak with authority about it. And I guess if the press restricted themselves to questions that could conceivably be answered, the system could work, but they don’t. Every reporter trots out “gotcha” style questions to throw at some dude who’s not the president, but is supposed to speak on behalf of the president and the whole administration. It’s nuts.