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  •   The First Flack's Last Stand

    White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry on Thursday. (Reuters)

    By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, October 2, 1998; Page D01

    The aisles were packed, the air was festive, and CNN's Eileen O'Connor was doing a live introduction from her second-row seat in front of the famous blue curtain.

    But when he appeared yesterday for his 539th and final White House briefing, Mike McCurry was all business: "Story of the day. News of the day. Let's go. Mr. Donaldson."

    Sam Donaldson obliged with a question about Bill Clinton having said in 1974 that lying to the American people was reason enough to impeach a president. McCurry replied that Watergate "was a lot more than lying to the American people, Sam," and that as far as Clinton having committed impeachable offenses, "this ain't it."

    McCurry, 43, seemed embarrassed at what one reporter called his "superstar" status. In a bizarre way, eight months of bobbing and weaving and just plain stonewalling on Monica Lewinsky have made him a celebrity, a fixture on the all-Monica cable channels.

    Yet the press secretary admitted he was worn down by scandal. And moments later, when Donaldson and CBS's Bill Plante pressed him about defending what turned out to be a presidential lie, McCurry offered this bit of self-defense:

    "The one thing I was determined, when that story broke back in January, was to never come here and do what some of my predecessors, unfortunately, did, which was to lie to you and mislead you. And sometimes not knowing the answer – even though that puts you in a tough position, too – is better than consciously misleading people. Now, I know that at times I came up short. I know at times that I didn't, you know, have the right information. And frankly, the president misled me, too, so I came here and misled you on occasion. And that was grievously wrong of him, but he's acknowledged that.

    "But, you know, did I ever knowingly come here and send you folks in the wrong direction? I did not. I'm confident of that."

    McCurry replaced Dee Dee Myers after the Democratic wipeout in the 1994 elections and tried, with limited success, to ease the tensions between the president and the press. McCurry's signal accomplishment is that after all the hand-to-hand combat with journalists, the late-night arguments and lectures on media sloppiness, most of the correspondents still love him. They even applauded as he left the podium.

    "I think he's actually been remarkable under some incredibly ugly circumstances, and has managed to deal with this with grace and a sense of respect for what we do," says Reuters correspondent Larry McQuillan. "Mike truly enjoys being with reporters."

    Not everyone is a big fan. New York Post reporter Deborah Orin, who has often tangled with McCurry, wrote yesterday that some critics believe he was "lying by omission rather than commission" during the Lewinsky investigation.

    McCurry turned down an interview request, saying he'd received enough attention when he announced his departure in July.

    McCurry's day began with a 7:30 senior staff meeting at which Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles departed from his bland corporate style to deliver an emotional tribute. "No one has ever had a better press secretary than Mike McCurry," Bowles gushed, prompting the 30 assembled officials to stand and clap for an embarrassingly long time.

    McCurry responded by telling his colleagues how lucky they are to have Joe Lockhart, his deputy, taking over.

    By the time the afternoon briefing began – about 45 minutes late, as is McCurry's wont – the pressroom was jammed with journalists from as far away as Austria and New Zealand. When McCurry appeared in his white shirt and telegenic red tie, a dozen TV cameras were rolling, double the usual number. This became a ritual when McCurry broke with precedent and allowed his daily gabfest to be televised.

    Yesterday's briefing had its usual crazy-quilt quality, careening from tax cuts to Cyprus to Ralph Nader to black farmers to Ross Perot to Pan Am 103 to impeachment. Much of the session was dead serious as the former State Department spokesman fielded questions about the possibility of U.S. military action in Kosovo.

    About midway through, as if on cue, the sounds of a Marine band wafted in from a Rose Garden event. But there was no sign of McCurry's trademark wit until a reporter asked if Clinton would be visiting Japan in November. "I got a lot of gobbledygook here that lets me come close to it but doesn't let me do it," he said.

    The spokesman then read from the "guidance," as such papers are called, in a newscaster's voice: The president "desires to make stops" in Japan and Korea; those countries are "receptive"; there are "scheduling issues" to be addressed, but a "formal statement" will be "properly announced in due course."

    Amid talk that McCurry will command as much as $20,000 a pop on the lecture circuit, he declined to ruminate on the lessons of his White House years. "I'm going to go out and make people pay to hear it," he said.

    His plans, other than corporate consulting? "Play a little golf. Make a little money. Do a lot of Little League coaching and volunteering in my schools." McCurry has often complained about being away from his three young children.

    He drew laughter when asked if he would write a book: "No. Well, not immediately. I might." But it would be a high-minded book on trying "to communicate about public policy in the Information Age."

    When things finally wound down, the press secretary got a rare valentine from one of his usual inquisitors.

    "You've done a good job, Mike," said wire service doyenne Helen Thomas.

    "Thanks, sweets!" McCurry replied, adding: "Helen and I always had a thing for each other."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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