Page Four of Four
The amazing thing was that it had worked. The scandals, from Whitewater to Travelgate to Paula Jones to campaign finance abuses, were under control. The Clinton team had managed to neutralize the damaging stories that had threatened his career since he first denied having an affair with Gennifer Flowers in the snows of New Hampshire in 1992. McCurry had learned how to rope off the endless stories, to keep them from polluting the daily briefing, to generate positive news despite the swirl of seamy allegations. By the first days of 1998, the president's popularity was as high as ever, he was firmly in control of the political debate and was even bathing in fawning publicity about his new puppy.
But the Clintonites refused to celebrate. They had been through too many roller-coaster rides. They were still one phone call away from disaster.
And so it was that on the afternoon of January 21, a grim-faced McCurry walked into the White House Briefing Room to face the music.
The news, McCurry knew, was bad, so undeniably awful that any attempt at spin would be ludicrous. The press secretary had bobbed and weaved and jabbed and scolded his way through all manner of Clinton controversies, but this one was different. The banner headline in that morning's Washington Post made clear that this was a crisis that could spell the end of Clinton's presidency. The Big Guy, as the staffers called him, had been accused of having sex with a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, in the executive mansion for more than a year, from the time that she was 21 years old. Even worse, Clinton was being accused of lying under oath about the affair committing perjury and urging the young woman to lie as well.
The reporters, McCurry knew, would be poised to pummel him. That was his job, of course, to stand at the podium and take whatever abuse the fourth estate wanted to dish out, hoping to score a few points in the process and convey what he could of the president's agenda. The White House correspondents had been supremely frustrated for the past year as Clinton kept slip-sliding his way through the muck. The president had maintained his extraordinary popularity despite their dogged efforts to hold him accountable for what they saw as the misconduct and the evasions that marked his administration. He had connected with the American public, and they had largely failed to lay a glove on him or make readers and viewers care. Clinton, in their view, had gotten away with it. Until now.
That morning, the president and three of his lawyers his outside attorneys, Robert Bennett and David Kendall, and Charles Ruff, the White House counsel had hammered out a carefully worded statement in which Clinton denied any "improper relationship" with Monica Lewinsky. McCurry had checked the final version with the boss "Fine," Clinton said and then read the statement to the press. McCurry had not asked the president himself if he had been screwing around with the intern. That was not his role. His job was to repeat whatever facts or assertions the lawyers had approved for public consumption.
As McCurry walked in front of the familiar blue curtain toward the podium and faced the assembled correspondents, the bank of cameras behind the seats made clear that this was no ordinary briefing. Normally, these sessions were replayed at a later hour for C-SPAN junkies, and if McCurry delivered any newsworthy phrases, a few seconds might show up on the network news. But this briefing was being carried live by CNN, by MSNBC, by Fox News Channel. The reporters, he knew, would be trying to bait him, to knock him off stride, to trick him into departing from the safety of his script. And he was equally determined to stand his ground.
"I'm not going to parse the statement," McCurry said.
"Does that mean no sexual relationship?" asked NBC's Claire Shipman.
"Claire, I'm just not going to parse the statement for you, it speaks for itself."
What kind of relationship did Clinton have with Lewinsky?
"I'm not characterizing it beyond what the statement that I've already issued says," McCurry replied.
Shipman's NBC colleague, David Bloom, tried to characterize McCurry's view. "So Mike, you're willing to "
"I'm not leaving any impression, David, and don't twist my words," McCurry shot back, jabbing his finger.
John Harris of The Washington Post invoked McCurry's own reputation for honesty, which the reporters knew he dearly prized. "Would you be up here today if you weren't absolutely confident these are not true?"
"Look, my personal views don't count," McCurry said. "I'm here to represent the thinking, the actions, the decisions of the president. That's what I get paid to do."
McCurry bit his lower lip as Deborah Orin of the New York Post tried next: "What is puzzling to many of us is that we've invited you probably two dozen times today to say there was no sexual relationship with this woman and you have not done so."
"But the president has said he never had any improper relationship with this woman. I think that speaks for itself."
"Why not put the word 'sexual' in?" asked ABC's Sam Donaldson.
"I didn't write the statement," McCurry said.
They went round and round, the reporters demanding answers and McCurry repeating the same unsatisfactory phrases that seemed only to stoke their anger. As the tension level escalated, McCurry tried a bit of humor.
What was the administration's next move?
"My next move is to get off this podium as quick as possible," McCurry said.
Thirty-six minutes and 148 questions later, it was over. McCurry, who had been planning to leave his high-pressure job, now realized he could not. Another Clinton scandal had exploded into his life and the life of the country. There was fresh damage to control. Once again he would do battle with frustrated reporters, doggedly defending the president's denials. Simply getting through each day was becoming a chore. McCurry was uncomfortable with the stonewaller's role, and there were times as in mid-February, when he let slip that there might be no "simple, innocent explanation" of Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky that this was all too apparent. McCurry refused to consider the possibility that his president was flat-out lying, because that was just too painful to contemplate. Sometimes, he felt, being a spokesman simply meant it was time to shut up.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company