Barnes & Nobleinfoseekad



Related Stories
 Click here for more political coverage from TIME magazine.



The Currie Riddle

Is she too loyal to say anything damaging, or too honest to say anything but the truth?

By Nancy Gibbs

TIME magazine

(TIME, April 27) -- Because she is such a calming presence, always a kind word, always a candy bowl on her desk, a cold cloth for the forehead, Betty Currie has been painted through this winter of scandal as a simple, sanctified sister of mercy. But she is also a puzzle, with a resume and reflexes that speak to lessons learned in 40 years of bureaucratic trench warfare. Is she too loyal ever to betray the President? Is she too honest ever to shade the truth? Kenneth Starr and Bill Clinton are each hoping that they know which side she will come down on--and the two sides couldn't be farther apart.

In the weeks since mid-January, when she spent four days holed up in a hotel room with Starr's team, answering questions about the President's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Currie has gone to work every day and tended to her ailing mother after hours. She sits right outside the Oval Office, answering Clinton's phones, opening his mail, greeting his visitors, gauging his mood for nervous guests, correcting his spelling, telling him when he's behind schedule and bringing him all sorts of other news, good and bad. In coming days she'll face Starr's team for another grilling under oath about her boss, which could yield the most crucial testimony yet against the President. She alone can say whether he tried to enlist her in covering up an alleged affair with Lewinsky by helping find the intern a job and by retrieving several gifts Clinton purchased for her.

Currie has a record of squeezing through tight spots, which makes her a much more nimble character than the snapshots suggest. She is so modest she neglected to tell her classmates at a high school reunion what she does for a living. "You almost had to drag it out of her that she worked at the White House," says Waukegan Township High School classmate Chandra Sefton. She is so reserved that she often uses only facial expressions to reveal her opinions. She keeps her private life so private that some of her co-workers were not really aware of her divorce, her courtship with the man who became her second husband, or the deaths last year of her brother and her sister. She is regarded by nearly everyone as apolitical and nonpartisan, but over 10 years and three elections she became a minor franchise player on Democratic presidential campaigns. "For a woman who's been around politics as long as she has, it does not appear that aggression has kept her in the game," says a Clinton White House veteran. "Being nice and observant and being savvy have kept her in the game."

In a city where people make a career of being overestimated, Currie understood the value of doing exactly the opposite. A modest upbringing and innate humility helped. Being a black woman in a white-male power structure did too, to the point that to this day all the faintly patronizing descriptions of her vast maternal instincts ignore the considerable influence she has exerted over the years. More than one White House veteran will say without prompting that Currie got her job in part to bring some diversity to the West Wing. That dismissive attitude just helped Currie fly below the radar.

Her first break came from a Republican boss, Joseph Blatchford, who took over the Peace Corps in 1969 and needed a new secretary. "The job was a crucial one. I had 10,000 people spread out over 68 countries, and I needed a reliable, efficient person," he says. "I didn't ask if she was a Republican or Democrat. I wasn't interested because she was so good." She stuck with Blatchford when he moved to ACTION, the federal agency that ran the Peace Corps, and stayed there through three directors, building her own network among the people who sit just outside the big corner offices. According to Sam Brown, another boss at ACTION, "Betty is not just an exceptional assistant who is smart and nice; she is well connected in that network of savvy career senior secretaries across Washington. She knows exactly who to call to get something done, or is at most two calls away from knowing."

Her political and personal life took a dramatic turn in the late 1970s. At that time, an action official named Robert Currie effectively took over the agency, and Betty began dating him. They married in 1988, and some colleagues perceived a shift in Betty Currie's political guidance system. "I cannot help thinking that Bob, who is very liberal politically, has had an influence on Betty and her decisions to become more partisan over the years," says a former co-worker.

By the time Ronald Reagan became President, Currie was so well entrenched that she and a handful of career bureaucrats all but controlled an agency that he had vowed to padlock. When he appointed a conservative Dallas lawyer named Thomas Pauken to head ACTION and "de-radicalize" the place, Pauken found he had to topple Currie first. "As long as she was sitting outside my office, I wasn't running the agency," he declares. So he demoted her. "Betty was surprised," he recalls. "She thought she had the place wired."

It was John Podesta, now Clinton's deputy chief of staff, who helped usher Currie into campaign politics. They met at ACTION in the 1970s, and eventually worked together on the Mondale campaign in 1984 and for Dukakis in 1988. After that hard, dispiriting race she swore to her husband that she'd never work on another one. That vow lasted until the next one, when she got a call to come work for strategist James Carville at Clinton headquarters in Little Rock, Ark. Currie told high school friend Sefton that she was working for this guy Clinton because after years of backing losers, she thought he really had a chance. Before the race was over, she was working in the Governor's mansion.

Once in the White House, Currie became an expert at making small talk with visiting dignitaries, members of Congress, Cabinet Secretaries and other Administration officials as they cooled their heels waiting for the ever tardy Clinton. In a tense atmosphere, where any information about the President's mood is vital, she was a great early-warning system. "She would never say, 'He's in a bad mood,'" says Chip Blacker, a National Security Council official, "but if things weren't going well, she'd open her eyes dramatically and pronounce, 'Well, it has been an interesting day.'"

Currie has faced the grand jury before--back in January, when the sight of her fighting her way through a crush of cameras put an end once and for all to her anonymity. She admitted to a friend, in a note written on White House stationery, "I'm aging fast!" But that was, in Monica years, ages ago, and since then much has happened. For one, she's recently back from a grand tour of Africa, where Clinton toasted her in several speeches. Old friends who have spoken with her in the past week say she sounds calm and unfazed about Round 2 with the independent counsel. But Starr has been closing in on her too. To sketch a clearer arc of Clinton's relationship with Monica, Starr has had the benefit of obtaining phone and pager logs, White House entry records, interviews with White House aides and E-mails. On her return trip to the grand jury, Currie is likely to be shown specific dates and times to refresh her memory of Monica visits. Was the President expecting Monica, or did she come to see Currie and seize the moment to see Clinton? Did the President and Monica meet alone? If the records indicate that Currie was in the middle of something she did not remember earlier, will her memory of key events be rekindled? And is it just a coincidence or one of those perfectly weird ironies of the whole Monicalendar that Currie might be appearing before the grand jury during National Secretaries Week?

--Reported by James Carney, Sally B. Donnelly, Mark Thompson and Michael Weisskopf/Washington


Personal: Married to Bob Currie, a retired government official, for 10 years. One daughter from earlier marriage

Professional: Climbed the ranks of civil service from typist to top secretary for three directors of ACTION, the agency that ran the Peace Corps. After "retiring," was lured back to work on presidential campaigns of Mondale, Dukakis and Clinton. Now she sits just outside the Oval Office

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: April 27, 1998

The Currie Riddle
The Priest At The Party
Greens Flip Over Turtles
Dividing Line
The Notebook: He Said, She Said
Spiriting Prayer Into School

Archives   |   CQ News   |   TIME On Politics   |   Feedback   |   Help

Copyright © 1998 AllPolitics All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this information is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.
Who we are.