Mike McCurry: Media 'Piata' to the President

When the press probes allegations about the White House, the presidential spokesman is the one under the klieg lights.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It was well into the morning when Mike McCurry finally made it to bed at the end of a recent 20-hour day, walking stealthily to avoid waking his young children and wife Debra. She stirred anyway. "Are you OK?" she asked.

Mr. McCurry replied with a familiar reassurance. "I'm fine," he said. Then both fell asleep almost immediately.

An unremarkable scene - except for the fact that presidential spokesman McCurry stands at the center of one of the most frenzied news storms that today's all-live, all-the-time information age has ever seen.

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It's his job to answer (or not answer, as the case may be) the endless round of press questions about the allegations of sexual misconduct and suborning of perjury by President Clinton. He's on-camera live, with a sense of humor and a "just another day" approach that has earned him widespread respect in Washington.

But as he stands at the White House podium he is also partly in the dark. McCurry has chosen to not know everything that other White House officials do about the Monica Lewinsky case. That will keep him from misleading reporters, if any of the allegations prove true. It also protects him from Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's subpoenas.

McCurry says senior advisers to the president have gone out of their way to keep him in the dark in the matter. He claims the approach is as frustrating for him as for the corps of reporters he faces each day. "Normally what I would do on any given story is get as much information, and get it out the door as quickly as possible," says McCurry in a Monitor interview.

Even in ordinary times, the presidential spokesman must be both a trustworthy conduit and a political airbag. He must be savvy enough to know what information to release, but also quick enough to deploy humor, silence, or even a counterpunch if needed to protect the White House. "The Secret Service protects him [the president] physically," says Ryan Barilleaux, a political science professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. "But the press secretary is important for protecting his reputation and political position."

I have nothing to say and I'm saying it

Since reports first broke that the president engaged in a year and a half-long affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, McCurry has been up front about the limited amount of information available to the press. Citing the legal nature of the case, he has refused to comment beyond what has been said by the president and first lady already.

But the South Carolina good old boy with Princeton University smarts is walking a thin line. Nothing devalues the currency of a spokesman faster than telling a lie. McCurry has stated his belief in the president's denials and carefully separated himself from the role of fact finder.

But some analysts think McCurry's position is a difficult one. "If Clinton is found to have lied or suborned perjury then Mike will be seen as aiding that process," says former Reagan and Bush spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.

One unwritten contract a press secretary signs with his president is to defend him to the end. It's hard to desert a president. "So regardless of what Mike might think happened, it is impossible to walk away at this point," says Fitzwater.

McCurry's reputation is one of having access to all White House meetings as well as the autonomy to explain the president's position. But in this case, McCurry says the approach is different. The stakes are high for him and the president. His integrity and that of his office is on the line.

Addressing it from the podium, he points to damage done to the institution of the presidency by some of his predecessors. "They did an awful lot of lying to the American people. And that's one thing I am not going to do from this room," he said recently. "I'm not going to get out on any limb that I'm not confident is a truthful one."

Indeed, some think earlier press secretaries crossed well over the line in defending their bosses. "Ron Ziegler is a good example," says Fitzwater. "Today he is successful, a very powerful and well remunerated leader in the pharmaceutical industry. But he will always be known for defending Richard Nixon, even after it became clear the president wasn't telling the truth. Mike could endure the same legacy."

The flash-fire nature of the story came as a surprise to McCurry and the media savvy Clinton administration, and represents the latest example of how the old fashioned 24 hour news cycle has evolved into a continuum. But the fast flow of information also has its benefits. "The good thing is we can turn a corner much quicker," McCurry says. "The speed with which people process or absorb information and then move on is pretty remarkable. I've been surprised."

Tight spots are nothing new for McCurry, whose first job out of college was with Sen. Harrison Williams (D) of Pennsylvania. In 1980, Sen. Williams was snared in the FBI's undercover bribery and corruption probe known as ABSCAM, leaving McCurry to face the media.

In his current role, he reads at least three hours worth of briefing materials a day to keep current on the administration's various positions. Like his boss, he is conversant even in the smallest details on a range of topics from satellite imagery to the economies of Latin America.

Long Democratic resume

McCurry has spent almost half of his life going toe-to-toe with the press, defending a who's who of the Democratic Party. In addition to Moynihan, he has worked with three presidential aspirants - Ohio Sen. John Glenn in 1984, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1988, and Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey in 1992. Born in Charleston, S.C., McCurry and his family later moved to Redwood City, Calif., where he spent most of his childhood. He recently phoned his parents, who are keen political observers, to reassure them all is well. "I tell them I am doing fine, and I'm not doing anything I wouldn't do on a normal day," he says.

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