By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - Larry Speakes, who took over as press secretary for President Ronald Reagan in 1981 after his predecessor was wounded in an assassination attempt against the president, died on Friday in Mississippi, a funeral home owner said.
Speakes, who had Alzheimer's disease, died in his sleep at his home in Cleveland, Mississippi, said Kenny Williams, owner of the Cleveland Funeral Home. He was 74.
Speakes joined the Reagan administration in 1981 as deputy press secretary after previously serving as vice president of public relations firm Hill and Knowlton. Later that year, he took over from James Brady as acting press secretary after Brady was wounded in the shooting attack on Reagan, and Speakes held the position until 1987.
He conducted some 2,000 daily press briefings, dealing with issues from the Iran-Contra scandal to the investigation into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and Cold War relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.
An announcement from the White House in 1987, when Speakes received the Presidential Citizens Medal, described him as "cool under pressure" and "conscientiously working to get the facts out."
In a statement, Ronald Reagan's widow, Nancy Reagan, called Speakes "an articulate and respected spokesman day in and day out, including some very historically significant moments."
"I was saddened to learn about Larry, who served Ronnie with great loyalty in one of the toughest jobs in the White House," Reagan said. She said it was a source of "special sadness" to know Speakes suffered from Alzheimer's, which also afflicted Ronald Reagan.
More recently, Speakes was criticized for his response to the AIDS crisis when the disease that early on was associated with gay men first came up at a White House press briefing.
At the October 1982 news conference, a reporter asked Speakes about the disease gaining epidemic proportions and called it the "gay plague," according to a transcript posted online last year by the Washington Post.
"I don't have it. Do you?" Speakes asked, to laughter from the press corps, and said he was unfamiliar with the disease, according to the transcript.
Speakes also worked in the White House in the 1970s.
During President Richard Nixon's final days in the White House, Speakes served as press secretary to the special counsel to the president in the Watergate hearings.
After Nixon resigned, Speakes was assistant press secretary to President Gerald Ford.
After leaving the White House, Speakes worked in public relations for Northern Telecom and the U.S. Postal Service, retiring from that last position in 2008.
Born in Cleveland, Mississippi, Speakes attended the University of Mississippi and went on to a career in newspapers, serving from 1966 to 1968 as general manager and editor for Progress Publishers of Leland, Mississippi, which published weekly newspapers.
Speakes was buried on Friday at North Cleveland Cemetery, Williams said. He is survived by a daughter, Sandy Speakes Huerta, and sons Scott and Jeremy Speakes, six grandchildren and one great grandchild.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Mary Wisniewski and Ken Wills)