Mike McCurry

Mike McCurry

Mike McCurry

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Jan. 28 2000 9:30 PM

Mike McCurry

How to be a pro. 


{{Slate's Political Roundup#73099}}

Last week an Internet startup no one had ever heard of with a business model that it won't discuss named former presidential press secretary Mike McCurry to its advisory board. This made headlines in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times, among other places. In exchange for stock options, McCurry will serve as a part-time adviser to Grassroots.com, a political portal that will launch in February (John Sununu, Tony Blankley, and Robert Shrum are also advisers to Grassroots.com, which says with sublime vagueness that it plans to "increase civic participation" as a "political-action destination."). McCurry left the White House more than a year ago and has kept a low profile since. Why does Washington remain fascinated with him?


The obvious reason for McCurry's celebrity is that he appeared on television so much. He started the practice of televising the daily White House press briefing—putting him on C-SPAN and CNN almost every day—and he was the Clinton administration's only public face during the Monica Lewinsky annus horriblis. But mostly McCurry still entrances Washington because he is the city's great untouchable—liked by all, admired by all, barely scarred by a scandal that destroyed everyone else it crashed into.

His untouchability is peculiar, because McCurry is a disaster magnet. His first D.C. employer was Sen. Harrison "Pete" Williams, D-N.J., who was convicted of bribery and conspiracy in the Abscam scandal. McCurry subsequently served as spokesman for the 1984 John Glenn presidential campaign, the 1988 Bruce Babbitt presidential campaign, the 1988 Lloyd Bentsen vice-presidential campaign, and the 1992 Bob Kerrey presidential campaign—four woeful efforts. ("I have worked for a long line of losers," McCurry once joked.) McCurry then served as mouthpiece for highly unmemorable Secretary of State Warren Christopher and was presidential press secretary during the tawdriest White House scandal in a generation. This does not sound like the résumé of a successful man. Yet McCurry has been considered a stand-up guy and a wonderful press secretary. He has survived 20 years in D.C. politics without making an enemy, a wonderful and terrible achievement. (His post-White House buckraking of speeches and corporate PR includes appearances with Marlin Fitzwater, commentaries with Tony Blankley, and a PR partnership with Susan Molinari.)

McCurry has skated through D.C. because he possesses two gifts: a first-class temperament and an exceptional understanding of loyalty. As press secretary, McCurry was political enough to explain a presidential position—even an untenable one—with eloquence and a straight face; honest (and cynical) enough to wink at reporters and whisper his real views to them later; ironic enough to joke about it all on the press plane a month afterward. This satisfied all his constituencies: It pushed the president's policies, informed the public, and made reporters feel like pals and co-conspirators.

McCurry's winking style would have infuriated the true Clintonistas, but his loyalty inoculated him. He never abandoned Williams during Abscam, though he was offered better jobs during that scandal. He did not quit during Flytrap, though he had been planning to leave for months. Since he resigned from the White House in October 1998, reporters and politicos have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Dick Morris, George Stephanopoulos, and David Gergen dished lavishly once they quit the Clinton fold. But McCurry has kept his mouth shut. Soon after his departure he said a few impolitic things in a BBC interview. (He admitted to "grave doubts" about Clinton's fitness for office and said that Clinton was "exasperatingly stupid in his private life.") That made headlines and "spooked" him, he says. Since then, he has abandoned candor, cracking only the mildest of Lewinsky jokes. He has not written a tell-all book (as press secretaries often do), and he has shied away from opining about the president on television or in print.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.


But McCurry always coupled loyalty to his boss with loyalty to the institution of Washington. As Clinton's mouthpiece, McCurry was partisan and sarcastic, manipulated reporters into softening stories, and bullied those who crossed him. He berated reporters self-righteously. (Once he claimed that the Clinton White House had higher standards of accuracy than the press did, which got a good laugh.) Even so, McCurry remained hugely popular among his press corps because he was one of them. Pols come and go, but press secretaries and reporters are forever. On the day of his first White House briefing, McCurry says, he was nervous until he looked out at the assembled press, and "I realized that I knew three-quarters of them, and I had known them for years."

McCurry helped reporters do their job, and they adored him for it. He explained complicated policies, spoke calmly during crises, and dug for inside information—a notable contrast to the ignorant Dee Dee Myers or the secretive Stephanopoulos. All press secretaries mislead reporters, but McCurry did it less than most. He never forgot that politics was—if not a game—at least a pleasure. He began one briefing with a paper bag over his head, playing an anonymous source. He dived into a pool fully clothed to win a bet. He told jokes on the sly at the president's expense, including one that would have gotten him fired if it hadn't come out during Flytrap. According to Howard Kurtz's Spin Cycle, McCurry told reporters on a press plane that a Peruvian mummy probably did "look good compared to the mummy he's been fucking."

McCurry's loyalty has never interfered with his self-interest. During Flytrap, he did not ask the president about Monica. He did not want to know, because he did not want to lie about it. He saw the scandal as the lawyers' responsibility and "did not want to dig the hole deeper," he says. His briefings were grotesque—he would brush off dozens of questions while attacking the president's accusers.

But it did not cost him. He guarded the president and preserved his own virginity. The press was peeved that he stonewalled them, but they assumed that his silences meant he knew Clinton was lying. (The wink triumphs again.) He gained a (not undeserved) reputation as the only honest man in a White House of liars. It was a magical bit of image polishing. McCurry, one of Clinton's chief enablers, turned himself into Clinton's victim.

There is a cost to being McCurry. The blessing of ironic detachment is that it separates you from the fervent believers who populate politics. McCurry has never been, and never wants to be, one of the inner-circle obsessives who will do anything—including lie, cheat, and steal—to help their boss. He is too normal and decent for that. But it also kept McCurry out of the center of power. He was, as he says, "the hired help"—never the boss. McCurry has spent 20 years measuring his words and speaking those words for someone else. That's a lot of sublimation.

Which is why Internet politics may be a safe haven for him. Most folks at politics dot-coms are gaga about the Web's populist possibilities: How can we make citizens' voices heard? That's not McCurry's interest. He sees it from the other direction: How can we make government heard—and understood? Washington is a maze of data and reports and laws, all of them inaccessible and incomprehensible to citizens. McCurry hopes to use the Web to deliver them to Americans in comprehensible, useful packages—information without spin. The measure of McCurry will be whether, after 20 years of spinning, he can still tell the difference.