By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 1998; Page B01
Mike McCurry stands at the lectern day after day, getting slashed and bashed, stubbornly sticking to his minimalist approach in fielding the most graphic questions about President Clinton and sex.
Piece of cake, he says.
"It's easier to do these briefings than on a quiet day," he says. "When there's no discernible story line, you've got to be rock solid on 15 subjects. That's infinitely harder than one subject." These days, he wonders, "Why am I spending time figuring out road policy in federal forests when no one's going to ask?"
This may amount to no more than administration spin; serving as the press's personal "pinata," as McCurry puts it, can't be all that much fun. But it is very much in keeping with the press secretary's style of cheerfully taking the hits for his boss.
"It's what I've got to do, given the circumstances we're in," he says. "That's my lot in life at the moment."
In the two weeks since the White House was plunged into turmoil over allegations that Clinton had an affair with former intern Monica Lewinsky, the country has seen a whole lot of McCurry, 43. The cable news outlets -- and on some occasions the major networks -- have been carrying his afternoon briefings live, fueling the sense of a crisis atmosphere unrivaled since the days of Ron Ziegler and Watergate.
McCurry's unruffled demeanor in the face of this hostile inquisition -- What did the president mean by sexual relationship? Did he give Lewinsky a dress? Just what was his relationship with this young woman? Hasn't he been lying about Gennifer Flowers? -- has become a major administration asset.
"He commands the podium, he commands the room," says presidential assistant Rahm Emanuel. "He's able to call a reporter when the reporter goes offsides. He doesn't get pushed around."
"To the extent there's a frenzy, he's at his best," says Lanny Davis, who just stepped down as Clinton's special counsel for scandal. "He has the ability to stay calm and remain calm. I don't think there's anybody better at this than he is, I would venture to say in history."
The press corps also gives him high marks. While McCurry stalls, frustrates and on rare occasions misleads them, reporters say, he is friendly, accessible and knows what's going on. Despite his protests that he is "out of the loop" on the Lewinsky story, most correspondents believe he knows more than he lets on.
"He's never caught off guard by a question," says David Bloom, NBC's White House correspondent. "He's almost always in the loop. He brings an intelligence to the discussion. It's not impossible, but it's very difficult to push him beyond where he wants to go."
"He's really kept his temper in control; it's amazing," says Helen Thomas of United Press International, the dean of White House correspondents. "He's more than holding his own. He's probably taking the right tack of 'see no evil, hear no evil.' You can't blame him for the self-protection of ignorance."
McCurry's straight-shooter reputation is such that journalists keep asking whether he really believes Clinton is telling the truth about Lewinsky.
"I feel absolutely confident in what I've said," McCurry says. "I only report those things I've been given that I've double-checked and feel comfortable with." Of course, he adds, "I have not said a whole lot on this subject."
McCurry, a trim man with thinning blond hair and a mischievous grin, was born in Charleston, S.C., and spent his teenage years in California. He earned his battle spurs on Capitol Hill, where he flacked for former senator Harrison Williams (D-N.J.) and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). After toiling for the Democratic National Committee and a corporate PR firm, he became the State Department spokesman when Clinton took office in 1993. Two years later, McCurry, who barely knew Clinton and had worked against him in the '92 primaries, was tapped to succeed Dee Dee Myers on the White House podium.
McCurry deflects tendentious questions with his trademark witticisms. He rebuffed one reporter by saying he was "double-parked in a no-comment zone." When asked if he was stonewalling, he launched into a disquisition about Stonewall Jackson. With maddening regularity, he refers scandal-related queries to the president's attorneys. Or he repeats himself ad nauseam, devising endless ways to duck:
"I'm not going to speculate on that."
"I'm just not going to parse the statement for you."
"I'll refer you to my transcript yesterday, which referred to my transcript the day before."
"I'm saying what I just said, and I will repeat it for you if you didn't get it."
McCurry occasionally turns testy, and he's not shy about expressing displeasure with his journalistic antagonists. "That's a disingenuous question," he snapped last week.
How does McCurry feel about being harassed by the likes of ABC's Sam Donaldson, NBC's Bloom and CBS's Scott Pelley? "It's only annoying when I think people are playing a game to demonstrate that there are all these questions we're not answering," he says. "Some of the TV guys are just trying to get something that will fit nicely into their pieces that night."
Bloom disagrees, saying: "That's our job, to find out what they're unwilling to tell us. It's not a game to me."
McCurry had made clear in recent months that he planned to step down soon, but the latest scandal has changed all that. He doesn't want to be seen as deserting the ship. "It's a great job and I love it," he says. "Any thoughts I have about leaving have to be temporarily suspended."
Despite the barrage of Lewinsky questions, McCurry looks for opportunities to talk about the administration's agenda. One day, knowing full well the networks couldn't care less, he brought out Robert Shireman, senior policy adviser at the National Economic Council, to talk about school construction bonds. Later he switched to "background" mode, detailing as a "senior administration official" the president's plans for Social Security reform.
Before each briefing, McCurry says, "we give very clear guidance that we aren't moving the ball." If the networks insist on interrupting regular programming, "fine, you're going to get a full dose of pension policy and education. There's 15 million people watching. Might as well take advantage of it."
For now, McCurry and company hope the overheated atmosphere will cool down and that the audience for his briefings will again be limited to C-SPAN junkies.
"The American people have spoken," McCurry says, "and they've made it quite clear they want their soaps back."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company