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Caught In The Town's Most Thankless Job

By Karen Tumulty/Washington

TIME magazine

(TIME, March 9) -- In a job where having an answer has not always meant the same thing as telling the truth, Michael McCurry had led a most charmed existence. Witty, candid and usually unflappable, McCurry was the rare White House press secretary whose reputation had not only survived but flourished--even as he brokered every day the conflicting interests of a scandal-prone President and a hard-bitten press corps. But as he stood gripping the briefing-room lectern last week, McCurry was showing uncustomary strain. He set his lips tightly when a reporter asked whether the press secretary could be sure that President Clinton's lawyers were giving him "full, complete, truthful" information. "Yes," McCurry said grimly. "And God help them if they're not."

These days it seems to be McCurry who could use the help. In the press conference that elicited the revealing aside, McCurry had been trying to extract himself from a misleading statement he had made over the weekend based on information provided to him by the White House counsel's office. Specifically, McCurry had flatly denied that anyone connected with the White House had hired or authorized private investigators to probe the background of prosecutors in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. A day later, on Monday, longtime Democratic operative Terry Lenzner acknowledged that his detective agency was indeed working for Clinton's lawyers and told the Washington Post that he found "nothing inappropriate" about investigating the prosecutors. So McCurry was left to reconcile a contradiction not even of his own making. When his colleagues on the communications team saw him emerge from the roomful of reporters "rocked, beat up," as a co-worker put it, they were furious on his behalf.

The 43-year-old spokesman has good-naturedly compared his role to being swatted around like a pinata. But since the Lewinsky story broke six weeks ago, the battering he's taking as the White House's chief defender is compounded by two problems. To start with, he has to handle questions he has been given no answers for. Even worse, sources say, McCurry is finding himself undercut by free-lance spinmeisters and by the President's legal teams, some of whom are engaging in their own leaks and covert counterattacks. One session last Wednesday involving McCurry's team and the lawyers exposed the difficulty of his predicament. White House counsel Charles Ruff, citing the fact that the matter was under court seal, refused to offer the press handlers any guidance on whether the President was invoking Executive privilege--even though someone among the lawyers had apparently leaked the news to the New York Times, which had played it on Page One that day. Further exasperating White House aides, Ruff added that the story was not precisely accurate but then wouldn't say where the errors were.

McCurry's frustrations have at times spilled over into the briefing room. One week into the scandal, he told reporters, "I think you all know the constraint that I'm laboring under here, and I don't want to belabor the pain and anguish I feel." Two weeks ago the spokesman himself became the story, when he suggested to a Chicago Tribune reporter that Clinton's ultimate explanation of his relationship with Lewinsky was not likely to be simple or innocent. (McCurry later explained his comments as "a lapse in my sanity.") Even McCurry's famous jokes are a bit off key these days. Last week, after addressing an assembly of Governors' press secretaries, McCurry told them he'd like to do it again at their next meeting. "Of course, I might not be here next year," he quipped. "But then again, Clinton might not be here either."

From the time he joined the White House three years ago, at a low point in relations between Clinton and the media, McCurry made it clear that he did not want scandal to be part of his portfolio. Through Whitewater and Donorgate, McCurry was able to shovel those questions to the counsel's office. But even while savvy, media-wise lawyers such as Mark Fabiani and his replacement Lanny Davis took the calls from investigative reporters, McCurry had to wage a vigorous internal campaign for openness. "What Mike McCurry has stood for is that if you give reporters all the facts up front, even before they ask for them, you stand a better chance of getting your viewpoint expressed and you'll have the story written accurately and completely," says Davis, who left the White House earlier this year.

The strategies that have made sense to McCurry have often put him at odds with longtime Clinton loyalists, such as secretive deputy counsel Bruce Lindsey and Lindsey's ally, fellow deputy counsel Cheryl Mills. Former White House aides fault Mills in particular for inaccurate statements McCurry has made in the past, leaving him fumbling for an explanation when the truth later emerged. McCurry, peering over half glasses during an interview in his office last week, defended Mills. "She's been burned too many times," he said. "She's seen people that she cares about get burned by reporters who are hostile and reporting that is inaccurate." A deeper problem for McCurry may be the fact that the President and First Lady have mixed views of what they want from a spokesman. They grasp the obvious point that a press secretary is useless unless he has credibility with the press; they appreciate McCurry's deft handling of quirky reporters and his fierce advocacy of Administration goals. But Clinton has at embattled moments mused to aides that he is not always sure whose interest his press secretary is serving best. If any coals of doubt about McCurry's loyalties still glow, they are certain to be stirred by the arrival in two weeks of Spin Cycle, a book by Howard Kurtz, in which the Washington Post media writer describes how scandal management has come to dominate the operations of the Clinton White House, with McCurry struggling to bridge a gap between the sometimes paranoid Clintons and a press corps hungry for scandal. McCurry is a main source for the book. It also includes a scene in which, at an unguarded moment, he is quoted telling a joke at Hillary's expense. Says a Clinton adviser: "Inside, McCurry's always been a little suspect. He's not an intimate. He's a hired hand, and he knows it." A former aide says, "In the end, [to the Clintons] it's about who's going to go to the barricades for them."

Adviser Sidney Blumenthal was hired to do just that last summer, which in itself has created problems for McCurry. For years Blumenthal had been whispering conspiracy theories about the press into the receptive ear of Hillary Clinton. At one point, Kurtz reports in his book, Blumenthal persuaded Hillary to commission a White House report criticizing Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt for her Whitewater coverage, with little evidence that it had been unfair or inaccurate. "The dumbest idea I've ever heard in my life," McCurry said about the notion of issuing the report as he ordered that all copies be collected.

Before Lewinsky came along, McCurry had been talking about how to find a way out of the White House. The father of three young children whose artwork and valentines decorate the walls of his office, McCurry skips watching the Sunday talk shows in favor of going to church. He dismisses suggestions that he is preparing to leave the job, but he is known to have his eye out for a professional opportunity that pays better and won't put him, as it did last year, on a flight to Bosnia on his son's birthday. Now that Clinton is under siege, McCurry cannot leave. "I don't know when I'm going to be able to get out of here," McCurry said last week. But he added that he plans to follow the advice his old boss Bruce Babbitt once gave him: "Exit the stage while the audience is still clapping."

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