Fifty-Seven Ways To Say "No Comment"

Aug. 16 1998 3:30 AM

Fifty-Seven Ways To Say "No Comment"

In which Mike McCurry defeats the White House press corps.

One of the weirdest and most pernicious side effects of Flytrap has been the relocation of the White House to an alternative universe, a place where up is down and down is up and everything is the opposite of what it should be.

In the Flytrap universe, there is a White House counsel (Charles Ruff) who can't counsel, a presidential confidant (Bruce Lindsey) whom the president can't confide in, a presidential wife who acts like a lawyer, a president who acts like a criminal defendant, and a former intern who has more power than any of them.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

The most public manifestation of the bizarro White House is Mike McCurry. He has become a spinner who can't spin, a presidential press secretary who can't talk to the press or the president about the only issue they care about.

Here, as evidence, are the notes I managed to scrawl during yesterday's White House press briefing. (The speaker is McCurry unless otherwise indicated, and the subject is Flytrap.)

The president has answered all questions.

It's clear there is nothing more to say.

I am not going to add anything.

I don't have anything to add. [twice]

You played a semantic game yesterday. I am not playing that game today.

You played a semantic game.

That has been asked and answered.

I just said I was not prepared with any information.

The same questions were asked yesterday.

The answer is the same answer. It is the same answer the president gave July 31.

We don't know.

I obviously don't have any information.

I don't have any information.

I just don't have an answer.

I don't have an answer to that.

That was asked and answered.

That was asked and I don't have the answer.

I don't have any answers.

The lawyers have not passed on any answers to us. We have passed on the questions, and they have said they would take them under advisement.

I am not making any news today. I made that clear.

I don't have any information.

I don't know.

We don't have anything to talk about. (To which tart Helen Thomas responds: "We do have something to talk about, but you're not talking about it.")

Sam, we have been through that.

I have not said anything.

I have not talked to him about this.

I have not talked to the president about it.

I have made it clear I have nothing to say on that subject today.

Quizzing McCurry is like playing tennis against a mattress. In half an hour of questions, reporters manage to glean nothing--not a single picayune detail--except the obvious fact that Clinton's lawyers have barred any public discussion. Among the subjects McCurry has no answers about: whether the president will address the nation Aug. 17, whether any of the logistics of his testimony will be revealed, whether he will answer all questions from Starr, whether Starr is coming to the White House, whether McCurry has talked to Clinton's lawyers, whether McCurry has talked to the president, whether "completely and truthfully" means the same thing it did at yesterday's press briefing, whether Harry Thomason is prepping the president, whether Thomason is staying at the White House.

(Throughout McCurry's litany of refusal, Sam Donaldson seethes, periodically interrupting with shouts of "Why are you denigrating us?" and "It's not a game!")

Ican't decide whom I feel sorrier for, the reporters without stories or the McCurry without answers. The assembled reporters have to ask questions, but they know he can't answer them. McCurry has nothing. For fear of subpoenas and legal bills, the press secretary simply can't talk to the president about Flytrap. He is in the impossible position of interpreting and reinterpreting exactly the same two public statements Clinton has made on the subject of Flytrap ("that woman" in January and "completely and truthfully" in July). He is otherwise a blank. The result: a farce, a mockery of discourse, an embarrassment to the press secretary and the press corps.

(McCurry may be obliged by ignorance to stiff-arm reporters, but that doesn't mean the White House is inattentive to the media. As the New York Times and Washington Post report this morning, Clinton advisers are busy testing how the press and public would respond to a limited mea culpa.) (For more on the utter cynicism of this latest White House PR ploy, see FRAME GAME: White Flag.)

When everyone eventually tires of this thrust and parry. McCurry adjourns the briefing and disappears into the West Wing. Deputy Press Secretary Joe Lockhart, who will succeed McCurry as press secretary next month, remains behind. (Lockhart, I had noticed, spent the entire briefing doodling red squares on his pad.)

Lockhart has learned well from his departing boss. I eavesdrop as Donaldson and Thomas corner the deputy press secretary. I can just hear Lockhart's soft, patient voice. "We get asked the same questions every day. You know as well as I do why we can't answer. ... Of course I haven't spoken to him. If I had discussed it with him I would be running up $50,000 a day in legal fees and be in front of that grand jury."

As I leave a few minutes later I still hear Lockhart, now pinned by another group of reporters: "I don't know. ... I don't know."

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