Saturday, January 11, 2014

Larry Speakes: In Memoriam

Former White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes passed away Friday in Mississippi after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.  Larry suddenly became President Ronald Reagan's acting press secretary when the president and then Press Secretary Jim Brady were shot in an assassination attempt in Washington.  

Larry ran an excellent press operation and populated it with many amazing people.  Although there could be tension between the press and the White House, relationships were professional, and generally friendly and cordial.  

Larry had a wicked sense of humor.  He was particularly funny when sharing stories about President Reagan with those closest to him.  He once recounted to me an incident that took place during an important cabinet meeting at the White House.  As Larry sat at the back of the room behind the president, he suddenly heard a beeping noise.  He then noticed that several people reacted to the beep by checking their pagers.  He then scanned the room for the source of the beeping, and soon came upon the answer.  He leaned over and tapped President Reagan on his shoulder and whispered in his good ear, "Mr. President, your hearing aide battery is dead."

Reagan spent weeks every summer at his ranch, Rancho del Cielo, in the hills above Santa Barbara.  The press operation and media worked out of the Sheraton Santa Barbara, about 30 miles from Reagan's ranch.  Given the time difference between New York and California, most of the news briefings took place by early afternoon so deadlines would be kept.

One day Larry asked me to join him, CBS News reporter Gary Schuster, and Deputy Press Secretary Rusty Brashear, for a trip to a Dodger game in Los Angeles as guests of manager Tommy Lasorda.  We arrived at Dodger Stadium late in the afternoon, just before batting practice and were escorted to the Dodgers' locker room.   Larry said, "Get ready for a full Lasorda."  I would soon know what he meant.  

We were led to Lasorda's office where we found him sitting at a plain office desk in his boxer shorts, a Dodger tee shirt and hat. "How you guys doing!" Tommy said as he jumped out of his chair.  "It's great to see you f...king guys!  You f...king guys want lunch?  Hey someone order these f...king guys some Chinese food!"  In the background I heard, "Okay skip."  Rick Monday, a former Cub and Dodger great, popped his head in to touch base with Lasorda before he headed up to the radio booth to do color commentary.

Then a rookie stuck his head in and asked if he could make a call.  We noticed there was an old rotary dial phone on Lasorda's desk, and he claimed it was the only phone in the locker room (there certainly were no smart phones in those days).   Tommy yelled at the kid to come back a little later.

He then told us about the time the kid had used the phone without asking, against clubhouse rules.  He told one of the coaches to send the kid into the men's room, where Lasorda was in a stall on the toilet.  "The kid comes in and meekly says, 'You want to see me coach?'"  Lasorda yells, "When I say I want to see you, I want to see you!  Open the door and get in here!"  The kid walks into the stall and looks terrified as his manager chews him out while sitting on the toilet.  After the punch line Lasorda said, "What a stupid f...king kid!"

After a big laugh, Lasorda put his pants on and took us for a tour.  Behind the home dugout and under the stands, there was a practice-batting cage surrounded by mesh nets.  As we approached we could hear someone hitting the ball.  Steve Sax was a pretty good player whose mediocre hitting kept him from being a super star.  

Lasorda loudly introduced us and asked, "Hey Saxie, did you ever find out who put that pig's head in your bed in Philly?"  "No, skip," Sax answered.  As we walked away from the batting cage, Tommy said, "That kid is really stupid.  When were in Philadelphia, I had my brother, who owns a restaurant there, arrange to place a pig's head on Sax's pillow with a note that read, 'You better start hitting or your dead'!"  It was a scene out of the Godfather, yet Tommy loved that Sax couldn't figure out who did it.

We walked onto the field, where Tommy verbally harassed one of his players, "You hit like shit!"  The infield was in terrific shape, and the view from home plate to the outfield was breathtaking.  We then returned to the dugout, where Tommy got into his uniform, more food arrived for us--Italian.  Larry was smiling as he led our group to our terrific seats.  The game was close to the end, but the Dodgers lost by a run.  

We didn't know what to expect when we joined Tommy, his wife and a few of their friends at the stadium club.  His spirits quickly picked up as he stared telling baseball stories.  I collected a book he had written and asked him to sign it.  He inscribed, "Hey Joe, you and the Dodgers are great.  Go Dodger blue.  Tommy Lasorda."  It seemed a totally genuine, even when I later realized  that everyone got the exact same personalized inscription.  Larry, thanks for the full Lasorda!

In June, 1982, I was the CBS News producer on President Reagan's trip to the Economic Summit in Versailles, France.  Larry Speakes and his team, including top assistant Mark Weinberg,  oversaw the American press corps.   CBS News had established a temporary editing operation run by a special events producer, Peter Sturtevant, who was in charge of all CBS News coverage from the Summit.

During the middle of the Summit, Israel invaded Lebanon in retaliation for ongoing terrorist attacks.  Their operation was being spearheaded by General Ariel Sharon.   The invasion was a surprise, and CBS News urgently needed to send producers to Lebanon.  The foreign desk called me and said since I was in France, I could get to Lebanon more quickly. 

I was surprised, and expressed concern because I had planned and already paid for a romantic French vacation with Susan Zirinsky that was schedule to begin in three days.  "No problem, we'll get you back in time," the editor responded confidently.  I said, "You can't get me from Versailles to a war zone in Beirut and back in three days."  "Don't worry about that," said the editor, "you need to go."  

I expressed my frustration to Mark Weinberg, who mentioned it to Larry.  But Larry knew exactly what to do.  He had Mark call Sturtevant and say that it would be a mistake to send me to Beirut.  If I were to go, CBS News might not get the latest information from the White House.    The next thing I knew, Sturtevant called me and said I did not have to go to Beirut.  Larry and I laughed when I went to thank him.

Coda: Susan joined me three days later in Paris, and we then traveled to the south of France, where we spent a glorious week.  On the last night I was awakened at 4 am by a phone call.  I vaguely said "Hello" and, in response, two CBS News executives said, "Guess who's going to Beirut?  Your plane for Tel Aviv leaves from Nice at 10am."  I spent a month in Beirut covering the ongoing war.

Larry respected the boundaries between the White House and the press.  For sure, the relationship could get very intense at times.  But I found that he was personally very open to those with whom he felt most comfortable.  More importantly, he was fiercely loyal to the president, and worked tirelessly in service of his country.  Larry was a true professional, and also a wonderful friend.  

NOTE:  Mark Weinberg advises the following:

The family has designated two charities for donations in Larry's  memory:

Sunny Seniors
107 South Victoria Avenue
Cleveland, Mississippi 38732
Alzheimer's Association of America
322 Eighth Avenue  7th floor
New York NY 10001

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