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Former Reagan spokesman Larry Speakes dies at 74

Larry Speakes, 74, who was plunged through a tragic assassination attempt in 1981, into the brightest of national spotlights, as chief spokesman for President Ronald Reagan, died Friday in Cleveland, Miss.

A spokesman for a funeral home said Mr. Speakes had Alzheimer's disease.

When Reagan press secretary James Brady was grievously wounded in the assassination attempt on the president, Mr. Speakes was thrust into the eye of the storm. Thereafter, he spent six years, a relatively long tenure, in a post that was one of the most sensitive in Washington.

His job included providing information to the news media on some of the most significant events in the history of the last half of the 20th century, including the meetings between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which helped end the Cold War.

Mr. Speakes also commanded the podium in the West Wing as disputes grew about an administration plan to trade arms to Iran in return for support of the Nicaraguan rebels known as the Contras.

Unlike many of those who held the spokesman's position, Mr. Speakes was officially the deputy press secretary, implying that he was only filling in for Brady.

Harsh criticism, producing symbolic scars and bruises, come with the job, and Mr. Speakes received at least his share.

Among the major controversies that swirled around him was his own revelation that he had put words in the mouth of the president. As disclosed in Mr. Speakes' memoir, a fabricated quotation was offered to the news media at the 1985 summit between Reagan and Gorbachev.

The wording has been given as, "There is much that divides us, but I believe the world breathes easier because we are talking here together."

The revelation prompted a media firestorm that led Mr. Speakes to resign from his post-White House position with what was then Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith.

Fault was also found with his attributing to Reagan words spoken by Secretary of State George Shultz when the Soviets shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983.

Mr. Speakes was quoted as saying that "my job here is to serve the president." And, he said, in explaining his practices of supplying information, "if that means drawing the line here and saying no more, that's what I'm going to do."

Clashes between him and his questioners were inevitable, as many in the media took the position that they, and through them members of the public, were owed more than Mr. Speakes seemed willing to divulge.

Mr. Speakes was born in Cleveland, Miss, in the state's Delta region, on Sept. 13, 1939. His father was a banker, and his upbringing in the town of Merigold was said to be comfortably upper middle class.

After newspaper jobs in Mississippi, he went to Washington in 1968 as press secretary for Sen. James O. Eastland, D-Miss.

Former Reagan spokesman Larry Speakes dies at 74 01/11/14 [Last modified: Saturday, January 11, 2014 4:13pm]
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