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Howard Kurtz is The Washington Post's media reporter. He is the author of Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine, published this month by Free Press, from which this article is excerpted.


From The Post Magazine
Spin Master

By Howard Kurtz
Sunday, March 8, 1998; Page W11

The daunting thing about Mike McCurry's job was that he was always one phone call away from disaster.

In the summer of 1997, the White House press secretary had known for weeks that Newsweek was sniffing around on yet another story about Bill Clinton's sex life, and this one was particularly explosive. A former White House volunteer, Kathleen Willey, was apparently telling the magazine that Clinton had propositioned her right there in the Oval Office, and that they had had some kind of furtive sexual encounter. This was not some ancient Arkansas allegation; this was said to have happened while Clinton was president, in the office where he received heads of state, in the very house where his wife lived.

It was no surprise to McCurry that Michael Isikoff, a combative, invariably rumpled Newsweek reporter, was the man on the bimbo patrol. Isikoff had been the first national reporter to trumpet Paula Jones's charges back in 1994, when he worked for The Washington Post, and he was tight with Jones's lawyers, who, in McCurry's view, were undoubtedly behind this latest sleazy charge. Isikoff and Newsweek had practically become publicists for Paula Jones, McCurry thought. The two had tangled before, and the press secretary had bad-mouthed Isikoff around town as an overzealous investigator. He had once ordered the reporter out of his office when Isikoff slipped in with another Newsweek correspondent and began pressing McCurry on whether he had been candid about the 1996 Democratic fund-raising scandal – an old-fashioned ambush.

The White House was right about one thing: Isikoff had gotten the tip from Jones's lawyer Joseph Cammarata. Isikoff tracked down Willey, a former campaign worker, who told him off the record about the sexual encounter, saying it had occurred in 1993. There were other bizarre twists to the tale: The alleged encounter took place on the very day that Willey's husband, an attorney accused of embezzling $275,000 from a client, committed suicide. Clinton had subsequently dispatched the onetime flight attendant as a delegate to U.N. conferences in Copenhagen and Jakarta, despite her lack of expertise. But Isikoff couldn't persuade Willey to go on the record, and he wasn't going to level such a serious charge with an anonymous source. The story was stalled.

In the incestuous world of journalism, however, there was always another way for sleaze to bubble to the surface. The conduit this time was Matt Drudge, a 30-year-old Walter Winchell wannabe who ran his own Web site, the Drudge Report, from a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood. Drudge's gossip wasn't always solid – he used material from the National Enquirer and Clinton-haters in Arkansas and had repeated predictions that Hillary would be indicted before the '96 election – but he had become fashionable among the media elite. One of Isikoff's Newsweek colleagues whispered word of the inquiry, according to Drudge, who quickly declared that Isikoff was "hot on the trail of a woman who claims to have been sexually propositioned by the president on federal property." White House staffers were so fixated on the story that they logged onto the Drudge site more than 2,600 times.

McCurry told Clinton he planned to stiff the press. "My instinct here is to make it very difficult for reporters to report this story and not do anything to help them," he said. But McCurry did not ask his boss whether the charges were true. As always, he had to stay away from fact-gathering, had to leave that to the lawyers, or he could be subpoenaed next in the Paula Jones case.

The White House, according to interviews with key participants who asked not to be identified, needed some intelligence fast. Lanny Davis, the special counsel who dealt with scandal and had known Isikoff for years, was asked to check things out. He felt awkward trying to smoke out a reporter in the guise of a social call, but he dialed Isikoff at home over the July 4 weekend. "I'm calling because we're old friends and some people here want me to find out what you're up to," Davis said.

Isikoff wouldn't bite. "You're asking me about an Internet gossip column?" he joked. "C'mon, Lanny."

Within weeks, the story spun out of Isikoff's control. CBS's Bill Plante learned that Cammarata had subpoenaed Willey as a witness in Paula Jones's sexual harassment suit. He called Robert Bennett, the president's lawyer, who derided the Willey charge with a pair of expletives off the record but confirmed the issuance of the subpoena. Plante reported the subpoena, without naming Willey, on the "CBS Evening News" the last Wednesday in July.

Within minutes, Wolf Blitzer, CNN's White House correspondent, was chasing the story. He called Cammarata, who refused to comment.

"Your no comment means it's basically true," Blitzer said.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because I've been a journalist for 20 years. If it was a lie, you'd say it was a lie." Bennett confirmed the subpoena soon afterward and Blitzer matched the story for CNN's 8 p.m. newscast. The Washington Times named Willey in a front-page story the next morning. The New York tabloids also joined the fray.

McCurry repeatedly refused to discuss Willey. He would not give the press a hook to reel in this journalistic garbage. Maybe he could prick their consciences, somehow shame them into dropping it.
Bennett thought all this was utter hypocrisy on the media's part. They were using the subpoena, and this Drudge guy, as an excuse to publish unsubstantiated charges that they could otherwise never touch. An analogy came to mind: When he lived with a bunch of guys in college, four were neat and one was a slob; by the end of the year they were all slobs. That's how it was with these seamy stories – a few irresponsible clowns were dragging everyone into the gutter.

McCurry, too, felt that the journalistic bar had been lowered yet again, that the press was feasting on rumor and innuendo, no matter how personally demeaning to the president. At the daily briefing, he repeatedly refused to discuss Willey, and would not even say whether she had once worked in the White House.

"I'm not answering questions on this matter . . . You're not going to use me at this podium to further stories that your news organizations have to decide on their own whether or not they want to publish," he said. McCurry felt strongly that he would not give the press a hook to reel in this piece of journalistic garbage. Maybe he could prick their consciences, somehow shame them into dropping it.

But the subpoena angle had rendered the unconfirmed allegations fit to print. An alleged sexual advance in the White House made news executives nervous; a witness summoned to discuss the same episode in a lawsuit was deemed fair game. The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday and USA Today were all in hot pursuit. McCurry started hassling Peter Baker as soon as the Washington Post reporter called.

"I can't believe you're gonna do this story," McCurry said. "I'm not gonna talk to The Post until a senior editor calls me and assures me you've thought through the consequences."

"Mike, you're not gonna talk me out of doing this story," Baker said. "This is a subpoena in a lawsuit we've been covering."

"I could subpoena you for [oral sex]," McCurry replied, meaning that anyone could make a wild charge in a legal document. Then he hung up.

After Baker's editor called to assure McCurry that the paper was serious about the story, McCurry told Baker: "Look, I was rough with you. I just want to make sure you've thought through this thing."

"Can't we just say the president denies this happened?" Baker asked.

That, for some reason, riled McCurry again. "You have no basis on which to ask that question," he snapped. "You never ask questions based on other people's reporting." But McCurry knew full well that this happened all the time; indeed, he himself had lectured reporters about repeating charges from the tabloids or the conservative press.

McCurry in floor/AP
McCurry climbing into the White House briefing room from the former swimming pool just below (James M. Thresher/The Washington Post)

Newsweek, which had triggered this journalistic chain reaction, now felt it had no choice but to publish what it had. Isikoff called McCurry, who launched into his spiel. "My policy on this – and this is not directed to you in particular – is that I'm not going to do anything with questions on this matter until I hear from a senior executive of your news organization, who tells me you are seriously pursuing a story on this matter and consider it a matter for publication." Ann McDaniel, the Washington bureau chief, called McCurry the next morning.

The sparring was just beginning. On Saturday, Isikoff, Evan Thomas, an assistant managing editor, and McDaniel gathered in the magazine's 12th-floor Pennsylvania Avenue office, one block west of the White House, and talked to McCurry on the squawk box. McDaniel assured him that Newsweek would do a balanced story reflecting that the Willey situation was "murky."

"There was a time when if it was a murky situation and it involved the president of the United States, news organizations wouldn't publish the story," McCurry declared. "It's pretty sad that we've come to this point. You're basically writing a story involving a charge of inappropriate sexual behavior by the president of the United States of America, and your own story says you don't have any idea whether it's true. You tell me that would have been the case five years ago."

He was just warming up. "Newsweek has an institutional investment in the Paula Jones story," McCurry said. "You've put her on the cover twice. You're pumping the story."

Thomas began to talk about how the Washington press corps was handling the matter.

"No, you, Evan. You've got an investment in this story," McCurry shot back. "You have just made the judgment that she is telling the truth and Bill Clinton is not."

"That's not true," Thomas said.

Isikoff's piece that Monday quoted a former White House aide, Linda Tripp, as saying that Willey had emerged from the Oval Office that day with her lipstick smeared, looking disheveled and happy. Willey had a good relationship with the president, her lawyer said, and Bennett said that Clinton had no recollection of having seen Willey in the Oval Office. It was the Paula Jones case all over again, two dramatically different accounts. The story was at a dead end, and the reporters, vaguely embarrassed and lacking further ammunition, quietly let it drop. For the moment, at least, McCurry had contained a story that threatened to reopen the whole seamy issue of the president's sexual behavior.

Later that week, Clinton pulled McCurry aside for a rare word of thanks. "I think you handled that correctly, and I appreciate it," he said. "I know it's not easy."

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

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."

McCurry with carrot
McCurry with a carrot for CBS's Rita Braver, after she had a racing filly named for her (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Mike McCurry was in Paris when he got the page from the White House press office. "Re: Supreme Court & Paula Jones," his beeper said.

It was the day after Memorial Day 1997, and the president was at the Elysee Palace to meet with Boris Yeltsin and sign an agreement to clear the way for the NATO alliance to expand into Eastern Europe. McCurry was puzzled by the page, having forgotten about the case, which had temporarily faded from the news. He called Washington and was told that the high court had held unanimously that a sitting president was not immune from lawsuits over personal behavior. Jones's suit, now three years old, could go forward. For that day's news cycle, Clinton diplomacy had been trumped by Clinton sleaze.

The president was studiously low-key, as if he were still teaching constitutional law back in Arkansas. "It must be an interesting opinion if it's 9-0," he told a small group of aides. "Let's find out what the reasoning is." In an instant, the staff's attention had turned from nuclear diplomacy to the politics of sexual harassment.

Rahm Emanuel, one of Clinton's top assistants, called the president's lawyer, Robert Bennett. Clinton wanted Bennett to handle all public comment about the case, Emanuel said. That was fine with Bennett. If there was one thing he didn't need, it was a bunch of White House aides who didn't know what the hell they were talking about popping off about the Jones case. They knew nothing about his strategy and might well say something that could hurt his client, legally or politically.

Bennett conferred with Clinton after the president's meeting with Boris Yeltsin. The unanimous ruling was a major disappointment. To be sure, their earlier strategy – delaying the embarrassing lawsuit until after the 1996 election – had succeeded. Bennett would never say that publicly, but it was true. Now he needed the flexibility to reach an out-of-court settlement if that seemed the best course. He gave an interview to CNN and, after notifying Emanuel, went on "Larry King Live" that night.

The reporters in Paris had no crack at Clinton all day. They were barred from his photo op with Boris Yeltsin. They asked McCurry if the court ruling was distracting the White House. Everyone figured it was, but there was no way McCurry would say so. "I believe the opinion appears to have distracted all of you, but the president continued to conduct the nation's business," he said.

The Paula Jones ruling led all the networks, bumping the NATO agreement to secondary status. CBS's Rita Braver reported that White House officials were "shocked" and were "trying to put an optimistic spin on the situation."

McCurry felt that reporters often made up this sort of stuff. No White House aide would tell the press they were stunned and flabbergasted and felt the trip had been ruined, he thought. Still, McCurry knew the correspondents would be clamoring for a comment from Clinton. They had to deal with the story, he told his White House colleagues. Perhaps Clinton could briefly talk to the press pool on Air Force One on the way to his next stop, in the Netherlands. But the other senior staffers overruled McCurry.

"We're on our trip," Emanuel said. "Let's keep this away from the president personally."

The battering continued in the morning papers. "Sense of Siege Deepens," said the New York Times. USA Today ran a huge picture of Paula Jones with the headline: "Sex Trial Possible in Clinton Term." The story said that Jones's lawyers would "start subpoenaing Clinton and at least 10 women he allegedly had trysts with," including Gennifer Flowers. The NATO meeting got a small headline.

Something else besides a press frenzy was going on here. On talk radio, in Internet gossip columns, in office corridors, people were again debating whether Clinton had dropped his pants in the presence of Jones, a subordinate, in Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel and suggested she kiss part of his anatomy. The story had become a national punch line. Clinton was providing America with its tabloid entertainment. The reporters, while pretending to be interested mainly in the lofty constitutional principles at stake, welcomed the chance to get down in the gutter. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put into play the latest chatter about what Jones meant by Clinton's "distinguishing characteristics" with a reference to "those rumors about that bald eagle tattoo."

The next day, Clinton met with European Union officials at The Hague, trailed by a small press pool. Ron Fournier of the Associated Press was under orders from his bosses not to ask Clinton about Paula Jones at the news conference. AP executives were nervous about having their man raise some domestic controversy at a foreign press gathering where the wire service got the first question. The pool members decided that the UPI man should ask the question at the photo op. But he didn't, and when Fournier tried shouting it, Clinton kept on walking. "They've gotta get something on this," McCurry told Clinton afterward.

In the pool van, dubbed Wire One, the reporters groused to McCurry that they had had no shot at Clinton. Fortunately for them, the president's car pulled over to the side of the road so he could shake some hands. The reporters raced out of the van and tried to get Clinton's attention from behind a metal gate.

"We didn't get a chance to talk to you, Mr. President!" Fournier shouted.

Clinton, still hobbled by an injured knee, ambled over with his cane and fielded the inevitable question. He said he was concerned about the ruling's effect on "future presidents" but would not go beyond that. "I saw Mr. Bennett's comments this morning, or heard them, on CNN," he said, deferring to his counsel. "I don't have anything to add to that."

As he walked away, Clinton asked McCurry: "How'd I do?"

"Perfect!" McCurry said.

The low-key approach was working fine, Bennett felt, until that lunatic Dick Morris announced his intention to discuss the case on television. 'Can you give me some talking points?' Morris asked.
Bennett, meanwhile, was deluged with interview requests. "Meet the Press," "Face the Nation" and "This Week" had called. He tentatively agreed to do all three but made no final commitments. He wanted to check with White House aides first, just to be diplomatic. If the story was fading by week's end, Bennett didn't want to give it new life by going on television. On the other hand, if the Sunday shows were definitely going to feature Paula Jones's lawyers, who were milking this for every last drop of publicity, he should be there to counter them. Bennett called a couple of friends at the networks, trying to figure out whether they would do a Paula Jones segment if he refused to appear. It was a cat-and-mouse game.

The low-key approach was working fine, Bennett felt, until that lunatic Dick Morris called and announced his intention to discuss the case on television. Morris, who had left the Clinton campaign the year before after becoming embroiled in a scandal involving a prostitute, was trying to become a commentator.

"I'm going out, can you give me some talking points?" Morris asked.

"Really, Dick, should you be doing this?" Bennett said, horrified.

But Morris would not be dissuaded. He couldn't stand being out of the limelight. Morris told the Fox News Channel that he had urged Bennett during the campaign to delay the Jones case until after the election. Even if Clinton won, he believed, being acquitted of sexual harassment was hardly the best way to begin the campaign. Morris knew that White House officials would be riled by his remarks, but he didn't care. He didn't work for them anymore. He was launching a punditry career and had to speak his mind. Fox called Bennett for comment, but he didn't return the call. This was exactly the sort of thing he wanted to avoid.

One of the reasons Bennett charged $495 an hour was that he was known as a media-savvy attorney with Brooklyn street smarts who could defend his high-profile clients – Caspar Weinberger, Clark Clifford, Dan Rostenkowski – in the court of public opinion. Lately, however, his relations with many reporters had gotten testy. He seemed defensive about the fact that he had been paid $892,000 in the Paula Jones case, only to lose nine-zip in the Supreme Court. He knew that he didn't hold the high moral ground in seeming to argue that the president was above the law and could not be sued while in office. But it had been necessary to combat what he saw as essentially a political assault on Clinton. He whispered to reporters that he had ample evidence of Jones's allegedly promiscuous background, describing it in graphic detail and vowing to use it if necessary. At other times he grew confrontational with the journalists themselves.

"I've talked to your colleagues about you," he snapped at one reporter. "They think you're unfair." He told another reporter she was incompetent and could not understand legal papers.

The White House decided that Bennett should go on both "Meet the Press" and CNN's "Late Edition." He spoke to Clinton on Saturday night. "You tell the American people that this did not happen," the president said. Bennett told his client that he planned to float the idea of a payment to charity as a way of settling the case, and Clinton agreed.

Bennett said on the two Sunday shows that Clinton would never apologize for something he didn't do, but might be willing to donate $600,000 or $700,000 to charity to settle the matter. He also delivered a not-so-veiled threat. If Paula Jones "really wants to put her reputation at issue, as we hear, we are prepared to do that," he told Tim Russert. Word leaked to the New York Times that his office had just flown one of Jones's former boyfriends to Washington and taken his deposition. It was a spectacular blunder. By threatening to pounce on Jones's sexual history, the president's lawyer seemed to be suggesting that an alleged victim of an unwelcome proposition may have been a willing participant.

The next day, Paula Jones graced Newsweek's cover for the second time in six months. Karen Breslau, the magazine's White House reporter, had warned McCurry about the cover story, and he let her have it. Newsweek is too vested in this story for its own good, McCurry snapped. This is more about selling magazines than covering legitimate news. You've become infected by the tabloid culture.

Reporters were quick to ask McCurry whether Clinton might pay the $700,000 from his personal funds or from insurance. He wasn't biting. Paula Jones was one of the subjects he didn't touch. "I don't have anything to add to what Mr. Bennett had to say yesterday," he said.

Bennett found himself under fire for his talk show performance. The Times accused him of "threatening on national television to ruin Ms. Jones's reputation by bringing up her sexual history." Patricia Ireland, head of the National Organization for Women, charged him with using a "nuts and sluts defense." Maureen Dowd called Bennett "the latest Clinton henchman to slime himself." Bennett felt he was being unfairly savaged. In his next life, he mused, he wanted to come back as a New York Times editorial writer so he could smack people around without worrying about the facts. He would just as soon keep everyone's sexual history out of the case. But Jones's lawyers, he felt, were making an issue of her supposedly pristine reputation and threatening to depose a long line of women who had reportedly slept with Clinton. Was he supposed to stand by silently, just because his client was the president of the United States? They were trying to humiliate Bill Clinton. He had to make Paula Jones feel she would pay some price for these hardball tactics.

There was another aspect to the case that only Clinton's closest confidants understood. Clinton insisted privately that Jones was a liar and a tool of the right-wing hate machine. He wanted vindication, to expose her false claims in court. He didn't want to settle, and Bennett was merely following his client's wishes.

But Bennett still didn't grasp how much trouble he was in, that he had come off like a break-your-kneecaps kind of guy. The normally sure-footed attorney wasn't accustomed to this sort of widespread denunciation. He was the newest White House spokesman to make himself the issue. White House aides were furious, convinced that Bennett had behaved like an idiot.

Bennett was flying back from a quick West Coast trip. He called Rahm Emanuel. Don't undercut me, he said. Don't get out there and pull the plug on me. I'm preparing to deal with this.

Bennett launched an extraordinary media counteroffensive, insisting that of course he had no desire to dig into Paula Jones's sexual background (notwithstanding the leak about deposing her ex-boyfriend). He spoke to the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Washington Times, NBC, AP, Wolf Blitzer, Charlie Rose, Ted Koppel. By scrambling to compensate for his original error, Bennett had kept the sexual harassment story in the news for another 10 days, a story the White House desperately wanted to vanish. "We're in a world of hurt on this thing," McCurry told John Podesta, the deputy chief of staff. But McCurry avoided talking to Bennett. They had clashed during the campaign over this lawsuit and clearly didn't like each other. Bennett was prickly about controlling the presentation of the president's case. McCurry felt it best to lay low.

McCurry with crutches
McCurry playing along with a Clinton April Fools' joke that McCurry had torn a tendon in his leg (Ruth Fremson/AP)

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.

The president insisted privately that Jones was a liar and a tool of the right-wing hate machine. He wanted vindication, to expose her false claims in court. He didn't want to settle.
The shouting began with the network correspondents taking the lead, demanding that McCurry explain what Clinton meant by an "improper" relationship.

"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

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