By Howard Kurtz
McCurry's comments to the Chicago Tribune, published yesterday, are the strongest indication to date that some White House officials fear the details of Clinton's involvement with the 24-year-old Lewinsky, when they are made public, could prove troublesome for the president. McCurry said that the nature of the relationship between Clinton and the former White House intern could be difficult to explain to the American people.
"Maybe there'll be a simple, innocent explanation," he told the Tribune's Roger Simon late last week. "I don't think so, because I think we would have offered that up already. . . . I think it's going to end up being a very complicated story, as most human relationships are. And I don't think it's going to be entirely easy to explain maybe."
McCurry said in an interview yesterday that he was not floating some sort of trial balloon for new Clinton disclosures. "I goofed," he said. "This is me running my mouth. . . . I wouldn't read any grand theory into this." McCurry said he had "no way of knowing" what Clinton would eventually say about the relationship, and "I should not imply that I do."
But other strategists in and around the White House see signs of a nascent effort to immunize Clinton against embarrassing disclosures he may be forced to make, even if he continues to insist the relationship with Lewinsky was not sexual. These strategists have spoken to reporters, without attribution, about the need for the president to formulate what one called an "alternate story line" about the relationship.
"A lot of people close to the situation believe [Clinton] is going to have to explain the nature of the relationship at some point to the American people," said one friend of McCurry. "All Mike McCurry may be doing is to prepare people for that eventuality. There are trial balloons being floated."
As reporters repeatedly pressed McCurry at yesterday's daily briefing, the normally sure-footed spokesman admitted he had screwed up, blaming it on a "lapse in my sanity."
"I speculated about matters that I don't know anything about . . . I said what I said. I just shouldn't have said it," McCurry explained.
While no other White House official has scolded him about the interview, McCurry said, "I've put myself in my own doghouse. . . . Only fools answer hypothetical questions."
McCurry has made clear over the past two weeks that he does not have the facts about the Lewinsky matter and does not want them, lest he face a subpoena from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. While standing behind Clinton's denial that he had sexual relations with Lewinsky or urged her to lie about it, McCurry has proclaimed from the podium that he is "out of the loop" on the scandal.
At a Harvard University forum early last week, McCurry first suggested that he was worried that Clinton's explanation could be damaging. "If it turns out what the president has said has not been fair and square with the American people, that has enormous implications," he said. But if it turns out that much of what has been reported is untrue, he added, the damage to the press "will be grievous."
McCurry told the Tribune, in initial comments published Friday, that he believed Clinton's denials, but that "truth to the contrary would be very troublesome to me, to the press and the American people."
One longtime McCurry associate, noting his use of the phrase "to me," said: "It was the first time I saw him laying the groundwork for a resignation. That makes it personal, not analytical." But another White House official strongly disputed this scenario, saying McCurry, who had planned to leave the administration before the scandal erupted, now intends to stay for the foreseeable future.
"No one has defended the president more loyally than Mike McCurry," said Lanny J. Davis, who stepped down last month as White House special counsel. "Anyone who thinks these comments reflect an effort by Mike to distance himself doesn't know what he's talking about."
The official White House position is that Clinton cannot say more about his relationship with Lewinsky because of Starr's investigation. McCurry invoked this line of reasoning in the Tribune interview, saying investigators might bring "enormous pressure on people to say certain things" once Clinton's version was made public.
But McCurry also said what no White House official has publicly acknowledged so far: that Clinton's explanation could be "complicated," not "innocent," and therefore politically damaging. Some former White House officials, such as Leon E. Panetta and George Stephanopoulos, have said there must be more to the relationship than Clinton has admitted so far and that he owes the public a fuller explanation.
The episode underscored the degree to which the Lewinsky controversy is taking a toll on White House staff. As the one White House official who faces the news media each day, McCurry has made clear the difficulty he faces in defending his boss and deflecting critical questions without knowing the facts. "In order to do my job and make it through the day," he told the Tribune, "I have to believe there is some kind of explanation that is consistent with what the president has said so far. I can't believe any other thing."
McCurry said the Lewinsky investigation was "a classic case" of his mission of "telling the truth slowly," a phrase he has often invoked to describe his job.
The interview also shed light on the president's reaction to the scandal. "Clearly this is something that bothers him; it would be inhuman if it didn't bother him, if he didn't show any reaction," McCurry said. "But he's got enormous discipline, and he doesn't allow himself to divert. The last thing you expect to see around here is Bill Clinton walking around the halls talking to portraits."
McCurry was referring to a scene in the book "The Final Days," by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, in which President Richard M. Nixon was described as walking the halls at night and talking to pictures of former presidents.
The spokesman also took a swipe at the news media, saying that reporters were "excited" and "thrilled" at the prospect of driving a president from office.
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