On Friday, Larry Speakes died. If you're under 35 or so the name probably doesn't mean that much to you, but for many people, he'll always be the symbol of a particular transformation in American politics. Whenever I think of Speakes, who served as White House spokesperson during the Reagan years, I think of a particular quote, one of those timeless utterances that sums up something fundamental about politics or a particular era. It came about because his boss, Ronald Reagan, liked to tell stories to make arguments about policy, or just to entertain people. The problem was that many of these stories were made up, and many others seemed to have come from movies he saw.
One of the latter was a story Reagan told in a speech to a group of Congressional Medal of Honor winners, about an old soldier in World War II who was in a plane that was on its way to crash after being damaged by antiaircraft fire. Everyone began bailing out, but one terrified young soldier was caught in the gun turret. "He took the boy's hand," Reagan said of the older man, "And said, 'Never mind, son, we'll ride it out together.' Congressional Medal of Honor, posthumously awarded." Though the story has been retold in many fictional contexts, it never actually happened. When columnist Lars-Erik Nelson asked Speakes about it, the spokesman said, "If you tell the same story five times, it's true." It would be hard to come up with a better motto for the entire Reagan presidency, and for its legacy to American politics.