Mike McCurry was President Bill Clinton’s spokesman during the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky years, so suffice to say he knows what it’s like to feel uncomfortable on a podium. But his typical audience these days scares him in a new way.
A few weeks ago, McCurry, 59, became a teacher in religion and politics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Northwest Washington, from which he graduated last spring. It marked his official transition from a hard-charging, super-political spin doctor who quietly attended church to a very public evangelizer for the idea that religious values can save “the frozen tundra” of today’s politics.
“I had no problem getting up and doing briefings before millions of people, but I am fearful in front of 12 students that I can’t really fake it,” says McCurry, who spent more than two decades as a political spokesman. “I’m laying it on the line about who I am and what I believe in a way that’s different. When you’re spokesman for someone else, they don’t care what you think. These people want to know who I am.”
Who McCurry is is, in part, a hybrid: He derides the political scene but is still very much in it, as an adviser to left-leaning religious advocacy groups and candidates. He almost spits the word “spin doctor” but has remained in communications and image-making his entire life. He’s known both as the guy who prompted great skepticism by declaring himself “out of the loop” on the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky and as an elder statesman of respectful, frank dialogue. The point of his program at Wesley is to get seminarians — most of whom are on the progressive side — to be comfortable merging their faith and politics in the public square. And yet several of his closest friends say he never speaks to them about his beliefs.
When he left the Clinton administration in the fall of 1998, McCurry wrote on White House stationery to a friend that he wanted to do “something that counts.” Yet his is not a story of some radical conversion. It’s a more subtle tale of a guy who has always had both a faith life and a political life but realized that the two should be one.
Growing up in Northern California in the late 1960s, McCurry and his family were involved in the local Congregational church, which is part of the liberal United Church of Christ. While his parents focused on church music, McCurry eagerly participated in youth group trips to Berkeley to protest the war in Vietnam. He loved politics.
“The church is what brought me to politics. But I thought: If the church is doing politics, I can go do politics on my own, which is what I did,” he said.
His father and grandfather worked for the government, and he saw public service and politics as a noble calling, an expression of his values. At that point — and for a few decades — he didn’t give a lot of thought to what Christianity taught and what he believed.
After graduating from Princeton University, he went right to Washington to work as a press secretary for Democratic senators and a string of Democratic candidates for the White House.
McCurry was considered a gifted communicator. He hadn’t been part of Clinton’s initial campaign crew, but in 1994 he was brought from the State Department to the White House.
At that point, religion was largely associated in politics with the right wing, and as secular Americans became a larger part of the Democratic Party base, Democrats became increasingly uncomfortable framing their values in spiritual terms. By then, McCurry and his wife, Debra, were parents and had become regulars at St. Paul’s United Methodist church in Kensington, where he taught Sunday school and made the separation between religion and politics more formal.
“I went to church on Sundays, but it never dawned on me, it never occurred to me that that should affect how I should behave,” McCurry says. “Church for me was a sanctuary away from the world of politics, where I could get away from it all and have my own spiritual reflections.”
Speaking openly about faith was not the Democrats’ way, and it wasn’t McCurry’s way, either. He was — and is — somewhat private about his faith.
“He’s more likely to talk about John Boehner than John Wesley. I think that’s a side of himself he’s happy to share but reluctant to impose,” said Joe Simitian, a childhood friend who went on to become mayor of Palo Alto. Other friends chuckled at the image of McCurry-as-choirboy, talking about prayer or sitting around reading the Bible quietly.
But the scrutiny of the rough-and-tumble Clinton years began to wear on McCurry. He was an avid defender of the president and of his policies but says he was hurt when editorial writers or others would question his own character. Even though McCurry was popular with reporters, it was the nature of the job for him to evade, bully and sometimes even threaten.
He kept his faith in a different compartment.
But he began to look at his role in a more critical way when longtime network correspondent Brit Hume “said I was the most political person who had ever been at that podium,” he said. “When Brit said that, it may have been the moment when I said: Am I dialed up too much?”
He remembered reading reporting about himself and thinking: “What have I done besides being a spin doctor that has created something important or some common good?”
When he left the White House in late 1998, McCurry recalls his pastor telling him: Now “you can do something important.” The pastor asked him to take a bigger leadership role, but at that point, he didn’t know that much about Christianity. To fill that gap, he began taking courses at Wesley, a mainline Protestant seminary affiliated with McCurry’s Methodist denomination.
He went into private communications consulting with the firm Public Strategies Washington and did some political advising, including near the end of John F. Kerry's 2004 campaign, when the Swift Boat controversy was raging. By then, his guidelines were clear.
“I said, I’ll do it, but I don’t want to be a mad-dog and say mean things about [President George W.] Bush and the other side,” McCurry says. “I think that experience for me said: This Christian thing has a practical application. A light bulb went off: We can have serious debate in this country without always questioning the other side’s motives. It’s corrosive.”
The Wesley courses slowly shifted his perspective about the purpose of his church life — and of politics. He was fascinated to see how early Christians dealt with similar issues: power politics, sex scandals, and the tension between pure morality and the pragmatic pursuit of policy change. And he thought about what he really believed for the first time.
“It brought out for me how you articulate what a creator God is for you. I don’t think I ever thought in those terms. I did my church thing, but as far as, what is God, how is God interacting with you, how is God affecting the world — those are profound questions I’d spent no time thinking about. I began a lifelong search for those answers,” he said.
As he slowly worked toward his degree, he became increasingly convinced that what modern political life needs is an infusion of basic scriptural values. Primarily: treat others with respect. He wanted to help both sides; to infuse progressive religious types — such as many of his students — with the skills to be models of effective, and yet loving, politics, and get sheer politicos to realize “you don’t need to blast your opponent every time they get a traffic ticket.”
McCurry’s place in Washington public life has changed quite a bit.
Since leaving the White House, he has played the role of generous, wise mentor to a generation of progressive Christians. He has advised most of the advocacy organizations that have sprung up in the past decade to give voice to religious liberals. He has done bipartisan presentations to groups such as chiefs-of-staff and Senate staffers.
“People are always deferential to him and just want to listen to whatever wisdom he has to share,” said Mara Vanderslice Kelly, who was a faith adviser to Kerry in 2004. “He is incredibly kind and generous. If there is a rough-and-tumble side to him, it certainly doesn’t come out anymore.”
Another thing that still doesn’t come out a lot is McCurry’s faith.
At a recent Monday afternoon class, he sat at a huge square table in his downtown office with Kelly and the 13 students in Wesley’s National Capitol Semester for Seminarians, which is geared toward students interested in politics or policy.
Kelly recently left the office at the White House that works with faith-based groups and was telling students about her path. They were animated not by juicy details of the White House but about her own story of coming to Christ.
McCurry sat watching, quietly.
“I am not an openly professing evangelical Christian who tells people on the street: ‘Let me tell you about my pal Jesus.’ I don’t wear my religion out there,” he said later.
“That has not been the vocabulary of my world. It’s a little outside the box for me. But I’m getting more comfortable.”