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The Continuation of Sleaze by Other Means : SPEAKING OUT The Reagan Presidency From Inside the White House by Larry Speakes with Robert Pack (Charles Scribner's Sons: $19.95; 320 pp.)

May 08, 1988|Daniel Schorr | Schorr is the senior news analyst for NPR in Washington

President Reagan can be faulted for complacency in surrounding himself with public servants bent mainly on serving themselves, but this book he didn't deserve. Clausewitz might call it a continuation of sleaze by other means. It is my nomination for most insensitive, meanest-spirited book of the year.

It is interesting to know what Larry Speakes considers the highlights of nearly 2,000 encounters with the press more than six years as presidential spokesman. When Prof. Franco Modigliani, a critic of Reagan fiscal policy, was awarded the 1985 Nobel Prize for economics, Speakes commented, "I thought he was the feller who painted the Sistine Chapel." To the suggestion of anti-Italian bias in the confusion with Michelangelo, Speakes rejoined, "Couldn't be. I eat spaghetti twice a week." Speakes prides himself on his repartee.

You undoubtedly know by now of Speake's indiscreet disclosure that he put words into the President's mouth after the shoot down of the Korean airliner in 1983 and during the Geneva summit in 1985. What you may not know is that these are only samples of the grandiose and sometimes comic way Speakes seeks to inject himself into great events in which he played incidental roles.

Thus, for example, he claims credit for having "set in motion" the departure of Secretary of State Alexander Haig from the Cabinet. This he did by mishandling questions, after the shooting of President Reagan, about who was in authority, leading Haig to rush into the press room and announce, "I am in control here." Of larger issues between Haig and the White House, Speakes seems unaware.

The former press spokesman achieves heights of banality in his efforts to show his involvement in great moments of history. The invasion of Grenada "definitely marked my low point," because he had been misinformed about the imminence of the operation. Of the Reykjavik summit in 1985, where Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev briefly contemplated the idea of abolishing nuclear weapons, "I felt a shudder go down my back and tears well in my eyes. We were on the verge of something momentous.

"Overall in my judgment," Speakes reflects, the Reykjavik meeting was a success. On the other hand, exposing the Marines to terrorist attack in Beirut was "a case of almost criminal negligence, to my way of thinking."

One could smile at this playing statesman were it not that Speakes also tries to raise his stature by demeaning almost everyone with whom he was associated. Among the journalists, columnist George Will was "pompous and arrogant," Lou Cannon of the Washington Post was "negative," and the "obnoxious" Chris Wallace of NBC "combined the worst qualities of Sam Donaldson and Lesley Stahl," which takes care of all three networks.

Worse are Speakes' sophomoric evaluations of the President's men. Vice President George Bush was "the perfect yes man . . . wishy-washy." Michael Deaver "got carried away by his own importance." Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was "a small man, a whiny type of guy." National security advisers "whom the President changed like underwear"--Richard Allen, William Clark, Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter-- were all mediocre, and McFarlane was "bizarre," to boot.

David Gergen, perceived as a rival to replace Jim Brady who was wounded by an assassin's bullet, was a subject of Speakes' special hatred. He tried to sabotage a Gergen briefing as communications director by having his lectern lowered. Later, when Gergen was editor of U.S. News and World Report, Speakes refused to accept his telephone call to discuss the jailing in Moscow of Nick Daniloff, U.S. News correspondent. Remarkable, in this fire sale of accumulated rancor, sneers and pettiness, is how little Speakes spares himself. He acknowledges his entry in the White House in 1974 by trading favors with Ken Clawson, Nixon director of communications, cynically observing that, "in circumstances like Watergate, you could rise very rapidly." He is aware of the accident of fate--the shooting of Jim Brady--that raised him to presidential spokesman. And he readily admits how much he enjoyed the trappings of that position, taking pleasure in being saluted by bystanders in motorcades "who thought I was the President as I rolled by in the dummy presidential limousine."

Betraying his own petty careerism is one thing, but it is something else to betray the President, whose image was his sacred trust. In the cause of spicing up his mediocre narrative, Speakes, the scourge of White House leakers, emerges as the ultimate leaker.

Thus, with a leer and a wink, he informs us that President Reagan has an eye for women other than Nancy Reagan and that the President rarely calls his children, "except for P.R. reasons." We learn also that Reagan "would remember scenes from the movies as if they happened in real life," and that his way of dealing with cancer was to refuse to believe that he had cancer.

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