Clinton spokesman has the last word McCurry, calling it quiets in the fall

July 24, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Mike McCurry, the congenial voice of the White House during some of its most tension-filled times, plans to step down as President Clinton's press secretary in the fall, Clinton announced yesterday.

In his 3 1/2 years as the administration's principal spokesman, McCurry, with his trademark wit and reputation for being forthright, won high marks for improving relations with the media. At the same time, he was considered a master at putting the most favorable "spin" on potentially damaging stories such as the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

At the briefing room lectern from which McCurry has fielded media questions, Clinton said his spokesman was leaving "much to my regret, but with my full understanding and support."

"Quite simply, Mike McCurry has set the standard by which future White House press secretaries will be judged," Clinton said. "Whatever the news, in good times and bad, he is trusted by the American people and trusted by our administration."

The president announced that Joe Lockhart, McCurry's deputy and the press secretary for Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign, would replace McCurry.

McCurry's departure had been expected for some time. Like many administration officials who had worked in the president's first term in office, McCurry, 43, had planned to leave in the early part of the second term.

But the explosive Lewinsky scandal, which demanded a steady and trusted spokesman for the president, appeared to put his exit strategy on hold.

No definite plans

McCurry, who was the State Department spokesman before coming to the White House in 1995, said he had no definite plans. But he suggested his next job would be in a different arena.

"I've got some very good career ideas, and I'm interested in changing careers," he said. "I've been a press secretary for 22 years in Washington now, and I've got some ideas of things that I'm going to do in the consulting world."

He said he looked forward to accepting speaking engagements and possibly teaching.

McCurry said he plans to leave after Congress finishes for the year, probably in October. Others may follow. Clinton's chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, has long indicated that he would like to return to North Carolina, and top presidential aides Rahm Emanuel and John Podesta are expected to leave in the near future.

McCurry, who's been active in Democratic circles for years, denied suggestions that his frustration over the daily storm of Lewinsky-related questions was behind his decision to leave.

He said he told Clinton that "only for the sake of building a new career, taking care of a family and enjoying myself a little bit more would I part company with the friends that I've made here and the work that I've done here. I can assure you it had nothing to do with anything else."

Out of the loop

Still, McCurry had taken the unusual step of deliberately staying out of the loop on the Lewinsky scandal so he could honestly say he could not answer most questions.

"He very wisely understood that he could not be prepared to handle press questions on Monica Lewinsky," said Helen Thomas, United Press International's White House correspondent, who has covered eight presidents. "The pitfalls were incredible. We still pounded him with Lewinsky questions. But in order for him to stay focused, he had to distance himself. From his standpoint, it was a survival technique. He was able to keep his credibility as a consequence."

Thomas praised McCurry for being most successful at repairing the hostile relations that existed between the White House and the media at the start of the Clinton administration. McCurry succeeded George Stephanopoulos and Dee Dee Myers as Clinton's press secretary, both of whom stumbled in the job.

"The first two years were almost a debacle in press relations," Thomas said. "He knew he had to clear the air, and there was a 180-degree change in the atmosphere."

'Ideal replacement'

One of his tools was humor. At one briefing, McCurry put a paper bag over his head and said he was an "anonymous source." He played April Fools' jokes on reporters, and once, on a dare, jumped into a swimming pool, fully dressed, while Clinton attended a late-night fund-raiser in Los Angeles.

"From my perspective, he did an outstanding job for the president," said Jody Powell, White House press secretary in the Carter administration. "And he did it in a job that has become progressively more difficult in the 20 years since I was there."

Before joining the Clinton administration, McCurry, a father of three, had served as a spokesman for presidential candidates Bob Kerrey of Nebraska in 1992, Bruce Babbitt of Arizona in 1988 and John Glenn of Ohio in 1984.

Clinton said Lockhart, 39, was the "ideal replacement" for McCurry. Lockhart said he was "daunted and intimidated" by the task before him.

"It's like the poor fool who is going to have step in for Michael Jordan next year," he said. "It's quite a challenge, and Mike has done an amazing job, shown me how to do it and hopefully, I can get somewhere near the standard he set."

Pub Date: 7/24/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.