McCurry leaves with reputation, humor intact In farewell briefing, aide to Clinton assures he never intentionally misled press

October 02, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Mike McCurry, who became a familiar face to the nation while defending President Clinton at White House briefings during the tumultuous Monica Lewinsky scandal, stepped up to the lectern for the last time yesterday, mixing his impish wit with an assurance to reporters that he had never intentionally misguided them.

In his crowded farewell briefing, the popular McCurry acknowledged, however, that "the president misled me, too, so I came here and misled you on occasion."

"That was grievously wrong of him," said McCurry, who leaves his post as press secretary today, "but he's acknowledged that."

Well-liked for his humor, congenial manner and accessibility, McCurry, 43, announced in July his intention to leave the White House in the fall, saying he wanted to change careers and spend more time with his family. He will be succeeded by his deputy, Joe Lockhart, who was the press secretary for Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign.

A father of three young children, McCurry said yesterday that he planned to "play a little golf, make a little money, do a lot of Little League coaching and volunteering in my schools."

He has no immediate plans to write a book, he said, but added with a laugh: "My agent advised me never to say no."

Earlier, McCurry told reporters that he hoped to give speeches, do consulting work and keep a hand in foreign affairs.

At the last of 539 White House briefings he has presided over since assuming the job in January 1995, McCurry reflected on his nearly four years as the public face of the Clinton administration and, specifically, his unusual decision to learn as little as possible about the Lewinsky matter.

The State Department spokesman before coming to the White House, McCurry said that, as press secretary, he saw his allegiance as being to both the president and the press. "That's the role of the press secretary -- to be equidistant between two combatants in this adversarial relationship," he said.

McCurry, who became visible to Americans through his decision to allow his daily briefings to be televised, said he "segmented out" Lewinsky matters to avoid jeopardizing the president's attorney-client privilege and to avoid being subpoenaed himself

by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

"I am not at all ashamed of that decision," he said. "I think it's the right one in the interests of the president, the presidency and it was in my personal self-interest."

He acknowledged that he had not sought out information on the Lewinsky case -- as a press secretary would normally do -- so that he would not be in the position of relaying information that might turn out to be false.

"The one thing I was determined, when that story broke in January, was to never come here and do what some of my predecessors unfortunately did, which was to lie to you and mislead you," McCurry said. "And sometimes not knowing the answer -- even though that puts you in a tough position, too -- is better than consciously misleading people.

"Now, I know that at times I came up short. But did I ever knowingly come here and send you folks in the wrong direction? I did not. I'm confident of that."

Sam Donaldson of ABC News said that McCurry, who succeeded Dee Dee Myers as Clinton's chief spokesman, "leaves with his reputation intact."

The veteran TV newsman noted that while McCurry's decision to insulate himself from the Lewinsky affair made life difficult for reporters, it might have saved McCurry's reputation.

"He tried to be loyal to his boss, but clearly didn't carry water for him when he knew that water was contaminated," Donaldson said. "He's gotten through this emergency without throwing his boss overboard and keeping himself from getting drawn into the cesspool of lies and deceit swirling around him. And he's done it generally with good humor."

In fact, McCurry's wit defused many tense sessions with reporters. In one memorable moment, McCurry placed a paper bag over his head and said he was briefing as "an anonymous source."

Yesterday, when a reporter noted his "free at last" demeanor, McCurry replied, "Does it show?"

Asked what his best moment at the White House was, he joked, "packing up and leaving tomorrow."

Asked if he had learned anything from this press corps and White House, he quipped: "Yeah, quite a bit, but I'm going to go out and make people pay to hear it."

On a more serious note, he said "there's a lot to say" about the press coverage of the Lewinsky story. But he declined to share his thoughts, saying: "I haven't really sorted it all out myself."

Showing his affinity for the journalists with whom he has jousted, McCurry left the lectern to applause, saying: "Dash, 30, dash," a newspaper reporter's symbol for the end of an article.

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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