The Larry Speakes I Knew

Former White House spokesman Larry Speakes, who died of complications from Alzheimer's disease recently, was my boss and friend for many years. I worked for him in the Reagan White House press office and later at the U.S. Postal Service. We first met during the 1980 presidential campaign, when I was an aide to Lyn Nofziger and later Jim Brady. Larry "inherited" me, as is often the case in politics.

Neither Larry nor anyone who worked with him expected the obituaries to be without criticism. He knew his strengths and weaknesses better than anyone.

But it still seems they were largely focused -- unduly, in my view -- on his sometimes spirited daily exchanges with the White House press corps, with several obits merely reciting the chronology of his career. It would have been more informative had they conveyed a true sense of who Larry was and the time in which he served.

Yes, he had strained relationships with some in the White House press corps at various times. What press secretary hasn't? He could be tough, like when he berated a senior network news correspondent for asking an embarrassing question of him at a routine photo op, by saying: "That's it, you are off the list!" Panicked, the reporter asked: "What list?" Larry's reply: "The one you ain't on." Or when he told a wire service reporter that he would "lop your head off" in response to some impertinent question asked in a briefing.

But at the end of the day, Larry was a pro. He understood the press, appreciated their role, and respected the fact that the podium from which he spoke belonged not to him, not to the Republican Party and not even to President Reagan, but to the American people. He was neither shrill nor particularly partisan, and had a keen sense of history. In fact, it was Larry who was the impetus behind the iconic oval logo of The White House that now hangs behind the podium in the press briefing room. Larry was bothered by the fact that the plain old blue curtains did not identify the speaker or locale, and would often say that it "looks like a funeral parlor." It may not have been called "branding" back then, but he asked for ideas of ways to instantly identify the venue, and we created what has now become one of the most imitated and adapted symbols of authority not only in the Federal government, but in State Capitols across the country and even at some government agencies in other countries.

And he was determined to make the White House press office as technologically advanced as possible, insisting that everyone on the staff use a computer rather than a typewriter. Those who resisted were told their typewriters would be taken away unless they learned to use computers. We learned.

Larry was not a worrier. When rumors swirled about his being replaced as chief White House spokesman -- which happened every few months -- he was unfazed. "If I don't work here, I'll work somewhere else," he told his anxious staff, and that was that. Despite being married three times, he was a family man -- a devoted, proud and loving father and grandfather, who never tired of talking about his children and grandchildren.

He was proud to be from the South and resented what he thought was a prejudice against southerners because of their accent. He was convinced that people who spoke with a southern accent were automatically viewed as dumb by northerners and others. But no matter, he wore his roots on his sleeve. His West Wing office -- just a few feet down the hall from the Oval Office -- was decorated not with 500 "me and the president" pictures that were the usual fare, but rather with art from and about Mississippi. There were paintings of cotton fields and rural towns, a couple of locally-made quilts, and some pottery. There was even a pillow on his sofa with the words "It's Hard to be Humble When You're from Mississippi" in needlepoint, prominently placed for all to see. (Some of us from other states did not fully understand why it was hard, but that's another story.) The most prized possession of all was a carefully framed tattered picture of Larry with his hero, Elvis Presley, whose birthday he marked every year by serving peanut butter and banana sandwiches to the staff, whether we liked them or not.

He had a unique way of phrasing things. People did not get mad, they got "swole." Nor were they "happy" -- they were "tickled" or "grinnin.'" He did not wish people "good luck, but instead said "I hope you luck." When he was in a hurry that was shortened to just "luck." In Larry's world, people did not get "presents" for their birthday, they got "prizes."

Larry was not particularly religious, but never drank, smoked or cursed. Ever. He was neither celebrity-struck nor a devotee of the Washington social scene. In fact, he disliked that aspect of the job. When he had to attend a social function, he came up with a plan to minimize his time there but still get full credit for being there. He would start at one end of the room and work his way around greeting people, etc. When he came upon the same person a second time, he would slip out.

When Jim Brady was injured, Larry did what a deputy should do. He stepped up and filled in as best he could. And while he often seemed to have a healthy ego, the truth is he never forgot where he was from. In fact, when he had his final meeting with President Reagan to say goodbye, he told the president that he never imagined a boy from a small town in Mississippi would one day be sitting in the Oval Office at the White House talking to a president of the United States. Reagan's response: "Imagine how I feel!"

Some people were struck by how quickly Larry was laid to rest after he passed away. (It was not because he was Jewish or Muslin. He was neither.) That's just how he wanted it done. He did not care much for what he called "funeralizing" -- all the "hootin' and hollerin'" when people died. To him, when it was over it was over.

Even his critics would likely concede that Larry was a good press secretary. He never forgot for whom he worked, but he artfully balanced serving "two masters." Admittedly, it was different back then. CNN was just beginning to find its footing; there was no Internet, Drudge Report, Twitter, CNBC, MSNBC, Fox News or any social media. How he would have fared under those circumstances is something we will never know.

But for a few minutes, as we remember Larry Speakes and the era in which he served, it's nice to think of that time when Washington was not dysfunctional -- when a president and speaker, even though political adversaries, could develop a productive working relationship and be friends; when politics was tough, but not mean-spirited or personal; when compromise and bipartisanship were not dirty words; when the best interests of the country came first.

Will it ever be like that again? If Larry were here, his answer would likely be: "Either it will or it won't."

Mark D. Weinberg, a corporate communications consultant and executive speechwriter, served as Special Assistant to the President and Assistant Press Secretary in the Reagan White House.