Larry M. Speakes is best known as the press secretary for Pres. Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1987. Speakes was born in Cleveland, Mississippi, on 13 September 1939, although his family lived in the small town of Merigold, about one hundred miles south of Memphis. His father, Harry Earl Speakes, a lifelong resident of Merigold, both worked at the family’s grocery store and served as the branch manager of the Cleveland State Bank. Speakes’s father worked at the grocery store until nine o’clock in the morning, when he would walk across the street to open the bank. At two o’clock in the afternoon, he would close the bank and go back to work at the grocery store. Speakes’s mother, Ethlyn Fincher Speakes, was also a lifelong resident of Merigold. Speakes and several of his friends formed a band, the Cottonchoppers, when he was fourteen, and the group played several venues in western Mississippi and Arkansas. Speakes admits to trying to sound like Elvis, who made a great impression on the group of youngsters. Speakes’s love of music continued into the White House, where he occasionally held Elvis trivia contests for the press corps.
During Speakes’s senior year in high school, a trip to Washington, D.C., that included a visit to Mississippi senator James O. Eastland’s office convinced Speakes that he wanted to enter politics and work in Washington. Speakes then studied journalism at the University of Mississippi, serving as associate editor of the campus newspaper, the Mississippian, and working as a stringer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Speakes left college without graduating to become the editor of a weekly newspaper in Oxford.
Speakes returned to the Delta in 1961 when he was hired to work at the Bolivar Commercial in Cleveland. He later worked as the county’s deputy civil defense director.
In 1964 he was named editor of the Bolivar Commercial, and he left that position to become editor of the weekly Leland Progress.
In 1968, just eleven years after his high school visit to Eastland’s office, Speakes became the senator’s press secretary. Speakes subsequently served as a coordinator for Eastland’s 1972 reelection campaign before joining the Nixon administration in 1974 as staff assistant to the president. Speakes later became press secretary to the special counsel to the president. After Nixon’s resignation, Speakes became assistant press secretary to Pres. Gerald Ford.
Speakes left political life in 1977 when he became vice president of an international public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton. In 1980 he reentered politics when he joined the communications staff of the Reagan-Bush committee during the 1980 presidential election. When Reagan and his press secretary, James Brady, were shot in 1981, Speakes took over Brady’s duties, although Brady retained the title of press secretary for the duration of Reagan’s tenure. In 1983 Speakes was named President Reagan’s chief spokesperson, and his years in the Reagan White House represented one of the longest stints of any Reagan aide. On behalf of the president, Speakes commented on such notable events as the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the military invasion of Grenada, the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Lebanon, the hijacking of a TWA plane in Lebanon and holding of forty American hostages, and the Iran-contra scandal, in which the administration traded arms to Iran to secure the release of American hostages.
Speakes left the White House in February 1987 for a public relations position with Merrill Lynch. He left that job the following year and released a book recounting his White House experiences. He later worked in public relations for the US Postal Service, eventually becoming head of advertising for the organization. He retired in 2008 and returned to Mississippi, where he died on 10 January 2014.
- American Presidency Project, University of California at Santa Barbara website, www.presidency.ucsb.edu
- Ronald Reagan, The Reagan Diaries, ed. Douglas Brinkley (2007)
- Larry Speakes, interview by Jeff Broadwater, John C. Stennis Oral History Project, Congressional and Presidential Research Center, Mississippi State University Library (1991)
- Larry Speakes, Speaking Out (1988)