Larry Speakes

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Larry Speakes
File:Larry Speakes portrait.jpg
Larry Speakes photographed in 1976
White House Press Secretary (acting)
In office
President Ronald Reagan
Preceded by James Brady
Succeeded by Marlin Fitzwater
Personal details
Born Larry Melvin Speakes
(1939-09-13)September 13, 1939
Cleveland, Mississippi
Died January 10, 2014(2014-01-10) (aged 74)
Cleveland, Mississippi
Resting place North Cleveland Cemetery
Nationality American
Spouse(s) Divorced from:

(1) Laura Christine Crawford Speakes
(2) Betty J. Robinson Speakes[1]

(3) Aleta Sindelar Speakes (married 2001; claims to be surviving spouse; name not mentioned in obituary)
Children Sondra Lanell "Sandy" Speakes Huerta

Barry Scott Speakes

Jeremy Stephen Speakes
Parents Harry Earl and Ethlyn Frances Speakes
Occupation Former White House press spokesman

Larry Melvin Speakes (September 13, 1939 – January 10, 2014) was an acting press spokesman for the White House under President Ronald Reagan, having held the position from 1981 to 1987.

Early life

Speakes was born in Cleveland in northwestern Mississippi, which had the nearest hospital to his parent's middle-class home in Merigold in Bolivar County. His father, Harry Earl Speakes, was a banker. His mother was the former Ethlyn Frances Fincher.[2]

Early career

Mississippi newspaperman

Speakes received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of Mississippi in Oxford. He served as editor of the Oxford Eagle' in 1961, and thereafter as managing editor of the Bolivar Commercial in Cleveland from 1962 to 1966. From 1966 to 1968, he worked as general manager and editor of Progress Publishers of Leland, Mississippi.

Senate press secretary

Speakes headed to Washington, D.C. in 1968, serving as press secretary to Democratic Senator James Eastland of Mississippi. In this capacity, he worked as spokesman for the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary and a coordinator of the senator's reelection campaign in 1972 against the Republican Gil Carmichael.

Work in the White House

The White House tapped Speakes in 1974 as a Staff Assistant and soon became the Press Secretary to the Special Counsel to the President at the height of the Watergate scandal. Upon Nixon's resignation, President Ford appointed Speakes to be Assistant Press Secretary to the President. Speakes served as Bob Dole's press secretary during his unsuccessful vice-presidential run with Ford.

After briefly serving as President Ford's personal press secretary in 1977, Speakes ventured into the private sector as vice president of the international public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton until 1981. After the 1980 presidential campaign, he worked on the staff of the Reagan-Bush team, helping to "straighten out" the press operation, eventually becoming deputy spokesman for the President-elect during the transition. Before the election, Speakes had considered working for the campaigns of George H. W. Bush, Jack Kemp, and Alexander Haig; however, Bush's people never got back to him, Speakes decided that Kemp was "too hot" (meaning too quick with an answer) for television, and was advised by another Washington insider, "You can do that [join the Haig team] if you want to, but let me tell you one thing: Al Haig ain't going to be President."

Presidential spokesman

When James Brady was shot in the assassination attempt on President Reagan on March 30, 1981, he was unable to return to work, though he retained the title of "Press Secretary" for the duration of Reagan's term. In Brady's absence, Speakes took over the job of handling the daily press briefings.

On June 17, 1981, Speakes was appointed "Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Press Secretary."

On August 5, 1983, Speakes was appointed "Assistant to the President and Principal Deputy Press Secretary," and remained in that post until January 1987, when he resigned and Marlin Fitzwater took over the role.

On January 30, 1987, he was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Reagan.

Speakes wrote in his 1988 memoir Speaking Out that he twice invented statements himself and attributed them to President Reagan. These statements included ones after the KAL 007 shootdown in 1983 and during the Geneva Summit of 1985. Speakes thought that Gorbachev's remarks at the summit had been highly quotable while Reagan's were "disappointingly lackluster",[3] so he asked his aides to make up some quotes, polished them himself, then issued to them the press as President Reagan's statements. Speakes' revelations, something of a side note in the book, touched off a minor controversy; reporters were annoyed at having been fooled, and Marlin Fitzwater, Speakes's successor, called it a "damn outrage"[3] and complained that they unfairly called into question the veracity of other presidential statements. Speakes said "I was representing his thought if not his words",[3] but also apologized to Reagan, saying he had "provided fodder for those who would aim the cannons of criticism at the President I served loyally for 6 years."[3] Speakes left a job at Merrill Lynch which he had held for a short time as a result of the controversy.[2]

AIDS controversy

Speakes has been criticized for remarks he made over the course of several White House press briefings from 1982 to 1984, which Vanity Fair compiled into a video called When AIDS Was Funny in 2015. Speakes had this exchange with reporters in 1982:[4][5]

Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that A-I-D-S is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?

SPEAKES: What’s A-I-D-S?

Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?

SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)

Q: No, I don’t.

SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.

Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President—

SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)

Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?

SPEAKES: No, I don't know anything about it, Lester.

Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?

SPEAKES: I don't think so. I don't think there’s been any—

Q: Nobody knows?

SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.

Q: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping—

SPEAKES: I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he’s had no—(laughter)—no patients suffering from A-I-D-S or whatever it is.

Q: The President doesn’t have gay plague, is that what you're saying or what?

SPEAKES: No, I didn’t say that.

Didn’t say that?

SPEAKES: I thought I heard you on the State Department over there. Why didn’t you stay there? (Laughter.)

Because I love you, Larry, that’s why. (Laughter.)

SPEAKES: Oh, I see. Just don’t put it in those terms, Lester. (Laughter.)

Q: Oh, I retract that.

SPEAKES: I hope so.

Personal life

Speakes was married to the former Laura Christine Crawford (born 1945), whom he met in high school. Long ago divorced, she resides in Oxford, Mississippi. They had three children.[2]

Speakes was also married to the former Betty J. Robinson and in 2001 Aleta Sindelar, a registered nurse from Bethesda, Maryland, who claims that Speakes gave her control of his $1 million estate, an issue that has pitted her in legal dispute with Speakes' children.[6] Ultimately, the Mississippi courts sided with Speakes' daughter and oldest child, Sondra "Sandy" Lanell Speakes Huerta of Cleveland, Mississippi. Sindelar's visitation with her husband was restricted. The Speakes' children said that Sindelar had deserted Larry and left him to care for himself in a condominium in Arlington, Virginia.[7]


Speakes died in Cleveland, Mississippi, on January 10, 2014, at the age of 74, of Alzheimer's disease. His body was interred a few hours after his death at North Cleveland Cemetery.[2][8]



  1. "Betty J. Robinson". Retrieved January 11, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Michael D. Shear (January 10, 2014) Larry Speakes, Public Face of Reagan Era, Dies at 74 New York Times. Retrieved January 11, 2014
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Boller, Jr., Paul F.; George, John (1989). They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505541-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "The Reagan Administration's Chilling Response to the AIDS Crisis". Vanity Fair. December 1, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Eilperin, Juliette (December 4, 2013) "How attitudes toward AIDS have changed, in the White House and beyond." Washington Post. (Retrieved 7-7-2014.)
  6. "The Speakes Family Battle Goes South, July 17, 2009". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 11, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Jerry Mitchell, "Speakes' estate ruling disputed Mississippi native's daughter given control; wife appeals," December 6, 2009". The Clarion-Ledger. Retrieved January 11, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Former Reagan Spokesman Larry Speakes Dies at 74 - ABC News

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
James Brady
White House Press Secretary
(acting press secretary; position still officially held by James Brady)

1981 – 1987
Succeeded by
Marlin Fitzwater