HOW is Mike McCurry doing as President Clinton's relatively new press secretary?
He's doing fine. He has access to the president, and he levels with the press.
That's what I'm hearing in an informal poll I have been taking of reporters who attend Monitor breakfasts. All the spontaneous comments I have heard from these journalists over the last several weeks have been like this: "We like Mike's sense of humor." "He's a nice guy." "You can't help liking Mike."
Maybe there are reporters who are faulting Mr. McCurry, the spokesman for the State Department who succeeded Dee Dee Myers as Mr. Clinton's representative with the media. If so, they haven't been raising their voices in my presence. Ms. Myers was liked, too. But reporters felt that she wasn't given sufficient access to the president - to his meetings with aides where decisions were made - to be fully useful as a conduit of information to the press.
I've been watching press secretaries for a long time, going back to Eisenhower's James Hagerty, who was one of the best. President Bush's Marlin Fitzwater was up there, too. And we can't forget Kennedy's Pierre Salinger or Carter's Jody Powell. It's early yet; but McCurry could also end up there among the best. But he probably would need a second Clinton term to conclusively prove his mettle.
The press secretary's job has become more difficult since the Vietnam War and Watergate. I sat in on many daily White House briefings during much of that period. And I recall how those sessions became heated confrontations as reporters became convinced that they were being lied to.
The angry shouting of questions at these briefings has subsided in recent years. But the Washington press corps remains skeptical, even cynical, when dealing with information being passed along to them by a president or someone who is speaking for him.
Thus, McCurry must do more than relay information. He must establish credibility with the press. He does this by taking pains to be accurate and not let the president or anyone around him hold back (or "hide," as the press would call it) any of the facts. This means, of course, that the president, himself, cannot withhold important information from his press secretary if the latter is to function effectively. President Ford didn't tell his press secretary, Jerry TerHorst, that he was going to pardon Richard Nixon. Mr. TerHorst resigned in protest of this presidential omission.
There was a time when reporters were more pliant, more willing to accept the presidential message, whatever it would be, without too much questioning. A longtime colleague of mine sat in with the small group of correspondents who met weekly with Franklin Roosevelt. He painted a picture to me of a bunch of reporters who loved Roosevelt and the direction he was taking the country. FDR had little trouble in getting his message out to the public in this favorable setting.
I've always been bothered by that picture. Presidents like to manage the news. They believe that their spin on their decisions or on events is important to getting things done. So managing the news isn't necessarily dishonorable - although it can be just that. Let's not forget Robert McNamara and his new book in which he divulges his failure (and Lyndon Johnson's, too) to tell the press and the public the truth about the Vietnam War. The press for far too long bought this false portrayal of that conflict.
I'm bothered, too, by a cynical press, one that doesn't believe anything coming from a government leader, particularly a president. Such cynicism can curb good, honorable government planning and initiatives.
But it is a highly skeptical and too-often cynical press that Mike McCurry must deal with today. And, from what I hear, he's doing just fine.