''He's one of the best," onetime presidential press secretary Jerry terHorst said the other day of Mike McCurry. "He's up there with Jim Hagerty," he told us, referring to President Eisenhower's highly regarded press secretary.
Mr. terHorst made quite a mark himself as a press secretary, although he performed in that capacity under President Ford for only a relatively few days. When Ford pardoned Nixon in a move that stirred up protest throughout the country, terHorst stepped down from his job in a resignation that itself became a stunning development.
TerHorst, who as a newsman had known Ford for years, explained that his sudden resignation was a matter of conscience. He saw the Nixon pardon as a great moral wrong. So he was leaving government despite the fact that he was giving up a prestigious position before he had hardly warmed the chair.
For his own act of protest terHorst won special respect from his peers. So when he rates another press secretary so highly - as he now does Mr. McCurry - it seems that, at the very least, a press secretary who has only been on board for only about half of President Clinton's first term must be getting the job done.
I, too, have been watching press secretaries up close for a long while. And although I no longer attend White House briefings, I breakfast with a lot of the reporters who see Mike in action daily. And what I hear from them all is this: They like McCurry and find him unfailingly good-humored. Most of all, they appreciate having a press secretary who is a part of Clinton's inner circle and who therefore is positioned to know from moment to moment what the president is thinking and intending to do.
McCurry has, himself, been a guest at Monitor breakfasts where he has proven to be exceedingly fast on his feet: When he gets a question that he can't answer, or shouldn't answer, he sidesteps with a quick witticism. Marlin Fitzwater, Reagan's and Bush's press secretary, would do this, too - although Marlin's wit was more low-keyed and subtle.
I RECALL that dean of White House correspondents, UPI's Helen Thomas, rating Mr. Fitzwater highly with this accolade: "He doesn't lie to us." I regard Fitzwater as one of the best that I've observed over the last 40 years. And I think it's promising for McCurry's future - his final rating, which will come after he winds up the current term - that I'm hearing that he, too, always "levels" with the press.
I saw the president's recent press conference on television. A few times the camera moved away from Mr. Clinton's face to that of a rather worried McCurry who, it appeared, was standing at the edge of the stage. His "boss," as he calls the president, was in great form. Clinton was answering tough questions with skill. He was reaching out to the Republicans, offering cooperation in the year ahead. Best of all, the president wasn't gloating over victory or criticizing his opponent for acts during the campaign that he may have deemed unfair. Indeed, Clinton had warm, complimentary words for Bob Dole.
So, I wondered, why did Mike seem to be squirming? Well, I think he saw the press conference running on and on, and while there had not been any presidential gaffes, he was concerned that his boss, who loves to talk, would get into some sticky stuff that might damage what was clearly turning out to be a shining performance.
McCurry finally got Clinton to stop by yelling, "This is the last question" - in any case, I think he was the one who said it. So the president took two more questions and, finally, walked away from the reporters after a press conference that lasted more than an hour.
One of McCurry's biggest jobs will be to corral his boss - to keep him from indulging in an occupation of his: an excess of talk. If Mike can do that and keep on leveling with the press, he'll very likely end up as "one of the best" press secretaries. Jerry terHorst thinks he's that good already. He may be right.