Clinton's Fourth Spokesman In Two Years

ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

January 07, 1995|By Carl M. Cannon and Nelson Schwartz | Carl M. Cannon and Nelson Schwartz,Washington Bureau of The Sun Mark Matthews of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- It didn't take presidential press secretary Michael D. McCurry long to get a laugh out of the White House briefing room.

When asked during his very first briefing this week how he felt about working for a man he'd tried to defeat in 1992, Mr. McCurry blushed as he apparently recalled laboring for a string of unsuccessful Democratic presidential hopefuls.

"Well, I think, as everyone said here, I've worked for a very long list of losers in my time," he said to loud laughter. "It's nice to work for a winner now, yes."

Dueling arrogance

And so began a new era at the Clinton White House. It has been an acrimonious two years, what with Whitewater, filibustering Republicans, Paula C. Jones and the often dueling arrogance of the Clintonites and the press corps.

Mr. McCurry officially succeeds Dee Dee Myers. He is the fourth person to be President Clinton's spokesman -- not counting Republican David R. Gergen, who was brought in a year and a half ago as the first quick-fix solution. The first spokesman was George R. Stephanopoulos. Then came Mark D. Gearan, followed by Ms. Myers.

By contrast, Larry M. Speakes and Marlin Fitzwater held the job for nearly the entire 12 years that President Ronald Reagan and President George Bush were in office.

"Bill Clinton has said he doesn't have a lot of respect for the press corps, and therefore hasn't given high priority to the press secretary or that function," Mr. Fitzwater said.

"I hear stories about President Clinton yelling about the press and how outrageous they are. That travels through the White House staff like a whirlwind. The message the staff gets is that they don't have to cooperate with the press secretary or the press."

Turnover in the White House press office isn't new. Thirty years ++ ago, as support for President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration sank and domestic strife mounted over the Vietnam War, Johnson went through a succession of different spokesmen.

But hiring and firing new press secretaries, according to presidential historian Stephen Ambrose, signals more than just a problem in getting out the message.

"There is a kill-the-messenger quality to it," Mr. Ambrose said. "The president wants better press, and the frustrations he feels are easiest to take out on the press secretary."

Like Mr. Johnson, Mr. Clinton is very sensitive to how he is portrayed in the media, sometimes taking negative press personally, several historians said.

Clinton highly suspicious

In addition, Mr. Clinton and his aides are highly suspicious of the White House press corps and their influence -- another similarity to the Johnson administration and many others.

According to Mr. Ambrose, "Clinton and Johnson share the idea that if they could just get the right person, they'll get good press. And that's just not true."

William E. Leuchtenburg, another presidential historian, noted that shifting the man or woman in front of the microphone can only do so much. "The problem with the Vietnam War wasn't in the packaging," he said. "The problem was with the policy."

Vic Gold, who served as Spiro T. Agnew's press secretary, agrees. He says that if Mr. Clinton believes that Mr. McCurry is going to help him sell a product that the American people don't want, the president is kidding himself.

But he also suggests that Mr. McCurry appears to be the right person for the job.

During her two years in the job, Ms. Myers complained about not having access to top-level White House meetings. Not everyone agreed this was the real source of her problems, but in any event Leon E. Panetta, the White House chief of staff, has offered Mr. McCurry access to the president.

The new press secretary will attend the senior staff meeting that begins at 7:30 a.m. -- and decision-making meetings that follow during the course of the day.

"I want to thank the president for giving me what I think is the best job in Washington, and more importantly, for giving me the tools that I think you need to do this job and do it well," Mr. McCurry said. "I appreciate the confidence that he's shown in me."

Those who've known the 40-year-old Mr. McCurry always thought he had the talent to do the job of presidential press secretary, but they wondered if he would ever be in a position to be offered it.

Picked losers

As if it wasn't hard enough for Democrats to put one of their own in the White House, Mr. McCurry seemed to have an uncanny knack of hooking up during the presidential primary season with Democratic candidates who would lose.

In 1984, he worked for Sen. John Glenn of Ohio. In 1988, he worked for former Arizona Gov. Bruce E. Babbitt, now the Interior secretary, and vice-presidential nominee Lloyd M. Bentsen. And in 1992, he went to work for Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

The Clinton transition team originally tapped Mr. McCurry to go to the Interior Department to help his old friend, Mr. Babbitt. But ,, Mr. McCurry held out for something higher profile, and landed his job as State Department spokesman.

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