McCurry Exit: A White House Wit's End
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.
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."
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