The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items
  • McCurry profile from 'Spin Cycle' by Howard Kurtz

  • Text of Clinton's announcement of McCurry's resignation

  • Text of today's press briefing by McCurry

  • In Lewinsky scandal, McCurry has been poised under pressure

  •   McCurry Exit: A White House Wit's End

    McCurry, Clinton and Lockhart
    From left, Deputy Press Secretary Joe Lockhart, President Clinton and Mike McCurry. (AP)

    By Peter Baker and Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, July 24, 1998; Page A01

    Michael McCurry, whose genial barbs and skillful spinning of reporters helped steer President Clinton through 3½ years of often hostile media fire, announced yesterday that he will step down this fall as White House press secretary.

    McCurry became the most recognizable face on the Clinton White House staff with televised daily briefings flavored by detailed explanations of policy and punctuated by pithy one-liners intended to defuse tense moments. Credited with repairing frayed relations with the news media, he was on the front lines for Clinton on nearly every major battle from budget wars to campaign finance improprieties.

    Clinton made a rare appearance in the White House briefing room to announce the move and named deputy press secretary Joseph Lockhart as McCurry's replacement. McCurry, who said he will explore private-sector opportunities such as speaking, teaching and consulting, plans to leave after Congress finishes work in October.

    McCurry's Many Faces
    Michael McCurry did it all during his tenure: bobbing and weaving, clowning for the cameras, schmoozing with reporters, aggressively playing defense on multiple scandals. This was the White House spokesman who:

  • Began a briefing as an "anonymous official" with a paper bag over his head.

  • Described his job as "telling the truth slowly."

  • Told the Chicago Tribune about President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky: "Maybe there'll be a simple, innocent explanation. I don't think so, because I think we would have offered that up already."

  • Conducted all news media briefings on camera for the first time in White House history.

  • Responded after the New York Times's William Safire called the first lady a "congenital liar": "The president, if he were not the president, would have delivered a more forceful response to that on the bridge of Mr. Safire's nose."

  • Jumped into a Hollywood swimming pool with his clothes on to win a $100 bet.

  • Gobbled down an African worm for the amusement of the news media.

  • Opened a briefing by telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer: "The president was just having a very good laugh at your most recent report."

  • Refused to answer a scandal question from the New York Post's Deborah Orin, saying: "I don't think it's worth my time to check."

  • Got into hot water by admitting: "I was a kid in the 1970s. You know, did I smoke a joint from time to time? Of course I did."

  • Declared an Air Force One session with the president to be on "psych background."

  • Elicited groans from the news corps by saying: "Once you're in the news business, the journalism business, your standards for accuracy are much lower than ours are standing here."

  • Ridiculed his own answers from the podium as "diplo-babble."

    – Howard Kurtz

  • "Quite simply, Mike McCurry has set the standard by which future White House press secretaries will be judged," Clinton said. "In an age where Washington has come to be governed by a 24-hour news cycle and endless cable channels with their special niche audiences, Mike has redefined the job of press secretary in a new and more challenging era."

    It was, at the same time, the best-kept and worst-kept secret in Washington. For months, McCurry's exit has been forecast as he told friends and colleagues that he was ready to move on. But the timing of the announcement was closely protected even from many in the press office and, in an extraordinary development for the Clinton White House, did not leak in advance.

    "The long-awaited coup in the press office is finally taking place," Clinton joked. With undisguised glee, he crowed, "It's rare in this White House that I get to announce my own personnel decisions!"

    McCurry's departure will deprive the president of perhaps his most valuable asset in selling his agenda to the public and defending him against omnipresent critics. While timed to minimize disruption, it comes at a difficult moment for the Clinton presidency as the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation moves closer to conclusion.

    McCurry, 43, valued his reputation for honesty, which remained largely intact. For all of the adversarial moments, he managed the near-impossible by staying popular with both colleagues and reporters.

    Yet even before the Lewinsky story broke in late January, he appeared close to worn out by the long hours and stressful conditions, a situation exacerbated by the latest twist in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's probe. If anything, the Lewinsky investigation prolonged McCurry's tenure as he postponed plans to leave for fear he would appear to be jumping ship, according to friends.

    "Often in times of controversy, relations become totally poisonous," McCurry said in an interview yesterday. "We have not reached that point here. You take some measure of satisfaction it didn't get worse. Things could have gotten very out of hand and ugly."

    Still, he survived the crisis by abandoning the one political commodity he prized the most: access. With subpoenas flying and lawyers setting strategy, McCurry deliberately stayed uninformed on the Lewinsky situation, aggravating an already combustible situation in the briefing room where questions went unanswered.

    "It was a good approach for me personally, a good approach for the institution of the presidency and a good approach for Bill Clinton personally," he said. The "downside," he acknowledged, was that the White House was accused of stonewalling.

    That was a striking turnaround for a veteran media spinner who arrived at the White House in January 1995 insisting on the access that his often-frustrated predecessor, Dee Dee Myers, never had. Having worked for Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) during the 1992 presidential primaries, McCurry had no personal relationship with Clinton and never became an FOB (Friend of Bill), despite the professional partnership that developed. In some ways, this enhanced his credibility because he did not take the daily slings so personally, according to colleagues and reporters.

    So did his background in politics, working for Sens. Harrison A. Williams (D-N.J.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), and presidential candidates John Glenn and Bruce Babbitt. He also brought a broad knowledge of foreign affairs from two years as chief State Department spokesman.

    "He certainly ranks among the top in press secretaries," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University scholar who has written about the history of presidential spokesmen. "He's certainly been the most effective press secretary" since the 1950s.

    McCurry's colleagues showered him with similar superlatives. Presidential counselor Paul Begala said McCurry "has all the tools: substantive knowledge, the utter confidence of the president and the senior staff and the respect of the press corps as well. And he's got the wit and personality to shrug off the worst kind of barbs."

    Lanny J. Davis, a former White House special counsel, said McCurry told him "the best way to serve your principal is to help the press write the story, good or bad. And if you do that, you'll get killed internally, and you're on your own to take the heat, but in the long run you're serving the president."

    Bill Plante, a CBS White House correspondent, called McCurry "really, really good at what he does. His most controversial decision was not to get involved in actively seeking out information about the Lewinsky scandal." But, Plante added, "It's an impossible job."

    Still, while known for light-hearted antics such as jumping, fully clothed, into a swimming pool at a fund-raiser on a $100 bet, McCurry had a testy side. He sometimes berated reporters he thought were going too far and called their bosses to complain.

    Lockhart, 39, is well liked among reporters, having served as Clinton's campaign spokesman in 1996 following a career that included work for presidential candidates Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis in addition to journalistic stints for CNN and ABC.

    After the 1996 election, Lockhart came to the White House as McCurry's chief lieutenant and presumed successor. While there was some doubt then whether he could become the chief spokesman with no significant government experience, Lockhart impressed the president so much that there were no other serious candidates when the time came to replace McCurry, officials said.

    Known for his own quick wit, Lockhart acknowledged that he will have a difficult task and plans to spend the next two months studying foreign policy, where he is not well versed. "It's like the poor fool who's going to have to step in for Michael Jordan next year," he said.

    McCurry's departure likely will be followed by others spaced out over the coming months, possibly including White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles, senior advisers Rahm Emanuel and Douglas B. Sosnik and others.

    "I don't think any of us felt we could leave in the first half of the year," said one official who asked not to be named. "Around Memorial Day, we got to thinking that Starr's going to go on forever, so we started talking among ourselves about staggering our departures." McCurry then wrote a letter to Clinton announcing his plans on May 29.

    McCurry was vague on his future yesterday, deflecting questions with characteristic humor. Asked about his teaching plans by a Boston Globe reporter, he responded with a gleam in his eye, "If I end up going to Harvard, I'll leak it to the Boston Globe first."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar
    WP Yellow Pages