Clinton Accused Special Report
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McCurry in bag/TWP
McCurry wearing a huge paper bag to begin a briefing as an anonymous source (James M. Thresher/The Washington Post)

Spin Master

Page Two of Four

One thing about McCurry, he knew how to play the game. He understood the ebb and flow of the fungible commodity called news. A trim, blue-eyed man with thinning blond hair, a pink complexion and an often bemused expression, McCurry, 43, was a spinmeister extraordinaire, deflecting questions with practiced ease, sugar-coating the messes into which the Clintonites seemed repeatedly to stumble. Reporters felt that he would mislead them on occasion, or try to pass them off to one of the damage-control lawyers who infested the public payroll. He would yell at offending correspondents, denounce their stories as inaccurate, denigrate them to their colleagues and their bosses. He would work the clock to keep damaging stories off the evening news, with its huge national audience, by stalling until the deadlines had passed. Yet with his considerable charm and quick wit, McCurry somehow managed to maintain friendly relations with most of the reporters who worked the White House beat. He would go to dinner with reporters, share a beer, give them a wink and a nod as he faithfully delivered the administration's line. He was walking the tightrope, struggling to maintain credibility with both the press and the president, to serve as an honest broker between the antagonists.

From the moment he made his debut at the White House podium in early 1995, he faced a moral dilemma. McCurry stood squarely at the intersection of news and propaganda, in the white-hot glare of the media spotlight, the buffer between self-serving administration officials and a cynical pack of reporters. The three principles of his job, he believed, were telling the truth, giving people a window on the White House and protecting the president, but the last imperative often made the first two difficult. If the corporate spokesman for Exxon or General Motors stretched the truth on occasion, well, that was seen as part of the job. McCurry himself had once been a corporate flack, trumpeting the virtues of the National Pork Producers Council. But now he worked for the head hog, and more was expected of the presidential press secretary, whose every syllable was transcribed by news agencies. His credibility, as well as the president's, was on the line. McCurry found ways to signal to reporters, usually under the protective cloak of background conversations, that he was not blindly loyal to his team. He wouldn't try to convince them that day was night.

As the Clinton scandals mounted, McCurry found himself facing the question that had dogged every presidential press secretary since the Nixon administration: whether it is possible to tell the truth, or something approximating the truth, in a highly polarized and turbulent political atmosphere. McCurry dearly prized his personal reputation for candor. He developed a series of rules and rationalizations to persuade himself that while he sometimes tiptoed up to the line separating flackery from falsehood, he never crossed it. He did this in part by cultivating an ignorance of facts that might be difficult, if not impossible, to defend.

McCurry, after all, was not a journalist out to learn whatever he could. He needed protection. There were answers he did not want to know. If a reporter asked him, for example, whether Clinton had knocked on the door of the Lincoln Bedroom after midnight and taken a $50,000 donation from a guest, McCurry wouldn't just walk into the Oval Office and ask whether it was true. For all he knew, Clinton might say, "Sure, I tucked it into the pocket of my bathrobe." Then McCurry would be a potential witness who might have to testify on the Hill or before a grand jury. That had happened to McCurry when he worked for Harrison Williams, the New Jersey senator who was convicted in the Abscam case in the early 1980s; he would not make the same mistake again. If Clinton answered the incriminating question, McCurry would no longer be able to plead ignorance with the press. What the president needed was a lawyer to gather the facts, someone who would be shielded by attorney-client privilege. Then McCurry could cite the lawyer's findings to the press without being personally exposed.

The three principles of his job were telling the truth, giving people a window on the White House and protecting the president, but the last imperative often made the first two difficult.
Yet McCurry was more than just the White House publicist. In a news-saturated age, the press secretary was famous in his own right, saying things the president wanted said but could not, for reasons of propriety or politics, say himself. All this came at a considerable price: the gut-wrenching pressure, the seven-day weeks, the hostile questions day after day. McCurry could be making three times his $125,000 salary had he stayed in corporate public relations, growing rich for setting up high-powered lunches, and spending more time with his wife, Debra, and their three kids. Instead he was facing the klieg lights each afternoon, suffering the slings and arrows of an outraged press corps.

No one really cared who the press secretary was, McCurry felt. Reporters were interested in him for one reason, as a conduit to the president's thinking. There wasn't a whole lot of room for personality in the job. Sure, McCurry had plenty of opinions on the issues. He was a closet New Democrat, a committed member of the party's moderate wing. But in the endless rounds of staff meetings, he consciously tried not to take a position or express his views. He cast himself as a neutral observer. White House officials on one side of a debate might criticize his briefings if he were openly aligned with another faction. His ultimate client was the president, who expected him to make the case for whatever the administration had decided, and not to pursue some personal agenda.

Part of the job, McCurry soon learned, was adjusting to Clinton's rhythms. If the boss wanted to engage in some locker room banter, or aimlessly talk politics, or angrily let off steam, the press secretary tried to accommodate him. They weren't exactly friends – McCurry knew full well he wasn't one of the original loyalists – and that suited him just fine. He didn't want to be Clinton's bosom buddy, because then Clinton might tell him sensitive things that he couldn't share with the press. The only White House socializing McCurry did was bringing his family to the Easter egg roll and the president's annual Christmas reading for small children. Otherwise he'd rather be home watching dinosaur videos with the kids; Debra had had their third child soon after he took the job.

Most of the correspondents were fond of McCurry. It wasn't just that they saw him as smart and helpful. He had a way of making each reporter think they had a special relationship. He would lower his voice and impart sensitive information, or chew the fat late into the evening.

Despite his easygoing persona, McCurry's own mood was erratic. He could be abrupt, some reporters felt, even short to the point of surliness. He once told a reporter his story idea was "sophomoric." He snapped at another reporter for being "puny-minded." He excelled at being noncommunicative when he was really peeved at reporters.

Most of the time, though, McCurry's sense of humor was his saving grace. No other press secretary had ever opened a briefing by saying, "All right, campers, what's on tap today? What should I wax poetic about?" Or: "You all look like a bunch of caged animals that have had nothing to eat all day long." Or placed a large paper bag over his head and begun the briefing as an anonymous source. Or described his own answers from the podium as "diplo-babble." And there is no record of any other presidential spokesman jumping into a Hollywood swimming pool with his clothes on to win a $100 bet.

It was a mark of McCurry's self-confidence that he was the first White House press secretary to allow the regular briefings to be televised. For years, the rule had been that only the first five minutes were on camera, to give the networks some fresh video wallpaper for their voice-over reports. The official explanation for this rule was that there would be a more relaxed exchange of information if the participants weren't performing for television. The real reason was to save the spokesman from embarrassment. If he said something dumb – such as when Marlin Fitzwater impulsively called Mikhail Gorbachev a "drugstore cowboy" – the sound bite could not be endlessly replayed for days.

McCurry, though, believed the five-minute rule set the wrong tone for the briefing, encouraging reporters to jump on him with their harshest questions before the lights went out. Without the rule, he had more control over the ebb and flow of the session. He would take his chances with the cameras.

In his first two years, McCurry, who had dabbled in journalism in college, made considerable headway in repairing Clinton's frayed relations with the press. But in the wake of the 1996 election, as investigations mounted into the Clinton campaign's fund-raising abuses, McCurry's own explanations were becoming an issue. A New York Times editorial declared that his reputation was "in tatters." McCurry moped around his office for two days after that single sentence sliced into his self-image. Now he understood how Bill and Hillary felt. This was just one hit. Imagine getting pilloried two, three, four times a week, as they routinely did, your personal and professional ethics savaged. The press seemed to lose sight of the fact that these were flawed human beings, and the attacks stung. For the first time in 20 years in public relations, he found his personal credibility being questioned, and it hurt.

McCurry's staff worried that he was working too hard. He would snap at people in meetings, or sit there scowling. He was coming in too many Saturdays, seemed to be in the office all the time. The reporters had never seen him so miserable. He had been a golden boy since high school, glib and successful, and now he was stuck in the mud with the rest of the administration. There was chatter in the pressroom about whether someone else might succeed him. Al Gore called McCurry in for a pep talk. They had a good relationship, and the veep could tell he was down in the dumps.

"Don't for a minute worry about this," he said. "Don't think the president and I worry about this. You're doing a very good job under the circumstances."

(continued on Page Three)

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