Clinton's Problems Test Advisers' Loyalty
By Dan Balz
When White House press secretary Michael McCurry finished briefly summarizing what the day held for him, Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles interjected a few words of praise before hearing from the next person. "By the way," Bowles said, according to another person at the table, "I don't think anybody's ever seen anybody better at his job than Mike McCurry. We are fortunate to have him here."
The rest of the staff broke into applause until McCurry, known as much for his sense of humor as the seriousness with which he approaches his job, interrupted. "Stop it," he said, "or I'll goof up again."
McCurry had spent the previous day cleaning up after himself, attempting to bury without retracting some provocative, but speculative, remarks he had made to the Chicago Tribune about the president's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky. "Maybe there'll be a simple, innocent explanation," he told the Tribune. "I don't think so, because I think we would have offered that up already."
Quizzed about the quotes at his briefing the day the story was published, McCurry did his best to dampen the controversy he had touched off: "I said what I said," he told reporters. "I just shouldn't have said it," adding that he had "put myself in my own doghouse."
That other members of the senior staff would feel the need to buck up McCurry for accidentally saying in public something that many of them privately believe is one small measure of how the Lewinsky matter has affected the White House. Despite the investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr into whether Clinton had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and later asked her to lie about it under oath, the president and his top advisers have attempted to carry on as if normal. But Clinton's problems have placed extraordinary burdens on those around him, with no guarantee that the controversy will not tarnish all of them in the end.
Loyalty is a noble human trait, but demanding also. Just what loyalty to the president currently demands became even clearer last week to three men who serve him in distinctly different ways.
First is McCurry, the front-line spokesman for the president who is defending him daily, even though he knows only a few of the facts of the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship.
The second is Bruce Lindsey, deputy White House counsel and Clinton's friend of 30 years, whose close relationship has brought him once again before a grand jury.
Finally, there is Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the Washington superlawyer and presidential confidant whose testimony before the Starr grand jury was, perhaps ominously, indefinitely delayed last week and who must be feeling the conflicting strains of loyalty more acutely than ever.
McCurry on the Front Lines
Mike McCurry has never been in Clinton's innermost circle. A veteran press secretary in Washington, McCurry in 1992 worked in the presidential campaign of Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), whose attacks on Clinton during the primaries left hard feelings with Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton. When Clinton won the presidency, McCurry became the State Department's chief spokesman. Within a year, he was being mentioned as a candidate for White House press secretary, but his chances were initially clouded by his work in the Kerrey campaign. Eventually, he was shifted to the White House, where he became a popular and effective spokesman for the president.
When the Lewinsky scandal broke just over a month ago, McCurry's job was to keep the news media at bay, and on the first day of the scandal he established an approach he has followed ever since -- offering snippets of information authorized by the president's lawyers and no more. As with many in the White House, McCurry has stayed out of sensitive internal discussions in part to avoid landing himself before the Starr grand jury.
This has led to what he has called a policy of "telling the truth slowly." Time and again, reporters attempted to push McCurry to offer, if not more facts, a fuller interpretation of what certain guarded statements mean. Time and again, he resisted, until he sat down with Roger Simon of the Chicago Tribune on Feb. 13.
The two met in McCurry's office that Friday morning for a taped, on-the-record interview. McCurry was comfortable with Simon from a long series of interviews for Simon's book on the 1996 campaign, and that day McCurry was perhaps more relaxed because the president was out of town. Whatever the circumstances, it did not take long for McCurry to venture into what had been forbidden territory by speculating on the record about the nature of the relationship between the president and the former White House intern. "I think it's going to end up being a very complicated story, as most human relationships are," McCurry said 10 minutes into the 50-minute interview. "And I don't think it's going to be entirely easy to explain, maybe."
It was the second time he had said something to Simon that was interpreted by others as a sign he was preparing for the emergence of a different explanation of the relationship. Two days earlier, McCurry had told the Tribune, "I believe exactly what he has said. He didn't have sexual relations with her and didn't ask her to lie. And truth to the contrary would be very troublesome to me, to the press and the American people."
That statement drew little attention when it was published, but Simon's longer story caused a storm in the press. McCurry was forced, as he put it to several people, "to disavow myself" without disavowing the story itself.
Despite McCurry's insistence that he had made a stupid mistake, others who knew him questioned that explanation. "Mike McCurry is too smart, too adroit, too savvy to put his foot in that pile unwittingly," a former administration official said. "My theory is that this was a deliberate floater that was subsequently denied because it had to be denied."
Inside the White House, as Bowles's comments at the senior staff meeting indicated, McCurry's problem brought more sympathy and support than condemnation. "A lot of people thought I beat myself up too hard," McCurry said. When other top officials were asked whether they privately agreed with McCurry's assessment, they refused to say.
In an interview Friday, McCurry described the role he has been trying to play throughout the crisis. "The tone I'm trying to set -- factual, straightforward -- is exactly what they [the president and first lady] want," he said. "They want people out there defending their reputation, and there are others doing that. That's not my role."
His role, McCurry said, is to avoid becoming a political or partisan advocate for the president. "I worry that people misinterpret what I'm doing," he added. "It's so critical that, in the midst of this frenzy, we don't do more damage to the relationship between the White House and the press. What would do further damage would be untruthful or misleading statements in the briefing room."
But don't his comments to the Tribune suggest an underlying worry on his part, and on the part of others at the White House, that there could be some troublesome disclosures ahead and they could find themselves embarrassed by their displays of loyalty?
"Because of the way the president has addressed this matter, and what he has said privately, lends people here a high degree of confidence in the truthfulness of what he's said," McCurry replied.
Lindsey on the Inside
If McCurry is the front-line spokesman not in the innermost circle, Bruce Lindsey is the opposite. The man who may be closer to the president than any other staff member in the White House rarely, if ever, speaks publicly about his friend and boss.
The relationship between Clinton and Lindsey cannot be reduced to one simple description. They have a relationship born of 30 years of close friendship. They are president and aide. They are attorney and client. They are political road warriors. And, say some of their friends, they feel they are "victims," two baby boomers who have been unfairly pilloried by their enemies.
"Somehow or another they're either melded or welded together mentally," said former senator David Pryor (D-Ark.). "He is Mr. Loyal. . . . Bruce was with him through thick and thin. He was with him when there were just two people traveling together to these far-off states. They've seen a lot of motel rooms together."
Lindsey, said a former White House official, is "totally loyal but totally honest and a person of impeccable judgment."
Lindsey and Clinton got to know each other when they worked for former senator J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.) in the late 1960s. When Clinton was defeated for reelection as governor in 1980, he took refuge in Lindsey's law firm as he rebuilt his political career. Lindsey was at his side throughout the 1992 campaign, defending Clinton against Gennifer Flowers's allegations and criticizing the press for questioning Clinton about the draft.
In the White House, he is the president's personal Mr. Fix-It, particularly on scandal-related matters. For his labors, he was named an unindicted co-conspirator in one part of Starr's Whitewater investigation and became a regular witness in grand jury proceedings.
Last week he was back for another appearance, this time over what he knows about the president and Lewinsky.
One measure of Lindsey's special relationship to the president is that it is Lindsey who may spark a constitutional battle over executive privilege, the largely undefined doctrine that allows a president to protect the confidentiality of his communications with advisers. The White House will not say whether Clinton has invoked executive privilege to prevent Lindsey from answering certain questions, but there were 10 lawyers with him when he arrived at the federal courthouse on Thursday.
Lindsey spent two days before the grand jury, and when he emerged, he told reporters, "In my judgment, it has been cordial. It may not be the judgment of the other side."
Lindsey's loyalty to Clinton is unquestioned. That he has paid a personal price for that loyalty is also unquestioned. It has taken a physical toll on the slight, intense Arkansas lawyer, as well as a significant financial toll from mounting legal bills. It also has affected his personal life. His wife, Beverly, who has remained in Little Rock throughout the Clinton presidency, was quoted in the New York Times recently as saying, "This has been one of the worst experiences in our lives."
Jordan at His Side
The day before Lindsey first appeared in front of Starr's grand jury last week, Vernon Jordan received some bad news. Starr's office informed Jordan that his grand jury testimony, scheduled for last Wednesday, was being postponed and that he was not likely to be called for "a considerable period of time," according to his lawyer, William G. Hundley.
Jordan occupies a unique niche in Clinton's orbit: virtually a presidential peer. He helped Clinton sort out his choice of a vice president in 1992. He helped run the president's transition team. He is perhaps as influential as any member of his Cabinet. The two men are golfing buddies and much more -- as was made clear by the fact that Jordan was asked by the White House to help find Lewinsky a job.
Lewinsky's attorney, William H. Ginsburg, has said his client first met with Jordan in November, although that meeting remains a disputed point among those familiar with the sequence of events. But significant new information emerged last week about other contacts between Jordan and the former intern.
Jordan and Lewinsky met four times between early December and mid-January. The first meeting was on Dec. 11, three days after Jordan received a call from Clinton's personal secretary, Betty Currie, asking him to help her. It was a request that Jordan interpreted as coming from the president, according to an informed source.
At the time of that call, Jordan reportedly did not know Lewinsky had been subpoenaed to testify in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit -- although Clinton's lawyers did.
Jordan met with Lewinsky again on Dec. 19, then again on an unspecified date, and finally on Jan. 12, just as Starr was learning about the secretly recorded audio tapes of conversations between Lewinsky and Linda R. Tripp.
When Jordan learned that Lewinsky was to give a deposition in the Jones case, he asked her and the president whether they had had a sexual relationship. According to an informed source, both told him no.
Jordan's friendship with Clinton provided benefits to both men, but that friendship has now put Jordan in legal jeopardy. What loyalty demands has become far more complicated with a grand jury appearance looming. As Jordan told a longtime associate some weeks ago, "I'm a loyal friend, but I'm no damn fool."
Staff writers Ruth Marcus, Susan Schmidt and Peter Baker and researcher Ben White contributed to this report.