On the afternoon of January 21, 1998, a year and a day after Bill Clinton's second inauguration, a grim-faced Mike McCurry walked into the White House Briefing Room to face the music.
The news, McCurry knew, was bad, so undeniably awful that any attempt at spin would be ludicrous. The canny press secretary had bobbed and weaved and jabbed and scolded his way through all manner of Clinton scandals, from the arcane Whitewater land dealings to the crass campaign fundraising excesses to the tawdry tale of Paula Jones. But this one was different. The banner headline in that morning's Washington Post made clear that this was a crisis that could spell the end of the Clinton presidency. The Big Guy, as the staffers called him, had been accused of having sex with a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, in the executive mansion for more than a year, from the time that she was twenty-one years old. Even worse, Clinton was being accused of lying under oath about the affair—committing perjury—and urging the young woman to lie as well.
The reporters, McCurry believed, would be poised to pummel him. That was his job, of course, to stand at the podium and take whatever abuse the fourth estate wanted to dish out, hoping to score a few points in the process and convey what he could of the president's agenda. But the White House correspondents had been supremely frustrated for the past year as Clinton kept slip-sliding his way through the scandalous muck. The president had maintained his extraordinary popularity despite their dogged efforts to hold him accountable for what they saw as the misconduct and the evasions that marked his administration. He had connected with the American public, and they had largely failed. Clinton, in their view, had gotten away with it. Until now.
That morning, the president and three of his lawyers—his outside attorneys, Robert Bennett and David Kendall, and Charles Ruff, the White House counsel—had hammered out a carefully worded statement in which Clinton denied any "improper relationship" with Monica Lewinsky. McCurry had checked the final version with the boss—"Fine," Clinton said—and then read the statement to the press. McCurry had not asked the president himself if he had been banging the intern. That was not his role; he was not a reporter or an investigator. His job was to repeat whatever facts or assertions the lawyers had approved for public consumption. He may have been a nationally known spokesman, the chief interpreter of administration policy, but in the end he was a flack protecting his client, no matter how distasteful the task.
As McCurry walked in front of the familiar blue curtain toward the podium and faced the assembled correspondents, the bank of cameras behind the wooden seats made clear that this was no ordinary briefing. Many of these sessions were replayed at a later hour for C-SPAN junkies, and if McCurry delivered any newsworthy phrases, a few seconds might show up on the network news. But this briefing was being carried live by CNN, by MSNBC, by Fox News Channel. The reporters, he knew, would be trying to bait him, to knock him off stride, to trick him into departing from the safety of his script. And he was equally determined to stand his ground.
The shouting began with the network correspondents taking the lead, demanding that McCurry explain what Clinton meant by an "improper" relationship.
"I'm not going to parse the statement," McCurry said.
"Does that mean no sexual relationship?" asked NBC's Claire Shipman.
"Claire, I'm just not going to parse the statement for you, it speaks for itself."
What kind of relationship did Clinton have with Lewinsky?
"I'm not characterizing it beyond what the statement that I've already issued says," McCurry replied.
Shipman's NBC colleague, David Bloom, uncorked a broader question: "Mike, would it be improper for the president of the United States to have had a sexual relationship with this woman?"
"You can stand here and ask a lot of questions over and over again and will elicit the exact same answer."
"So Mike, you're willing to—"
"I'm not leaving any impression, David, and don't twist my words," McCurry shot back, jabbing his finger.
John Harris of the Washington Post tried a different tack, invoking McCurry's own reputation for honesty, which the reporters knew he dearly prized. "Would you be up here today if you weren't absolutely confident these are not true?"
"Look, my personal views don't count," McCurry said. "I'm here to represent the thinking, the actions, the decisions of the president. That's what I get paid to do."
McCurry bit his lower lip as Deborah Orin of the New York Post tried next: "What is puzzling to many of us is that we've invited you probably two dozen times today to say there was no sexual relationship with this woman and you have not done so."
"But the president has said he never had any improper relationship with this woman. I think that speaks for itself."
"Why not put the word 'sexual' in?" asked ABCs Sam Donaldson.
"I didn't write the statement," McCurry said.
They went round and round, the reporters demanding answers and McCurry repeating the same unsatisfactory phrases that seemed only to stoke their anger. As the tension level escalated, McCurry tried a bit of humor.
What was the administration's next move?
"My next move is to get off this podium as quick as possible," McCurry said.
Thirty-six minutes and one hundred forty-eight questions later, it was finally over.
Just a week earlier, the start of Clinton's sixth year in office had seemed so promising. The White House spin team had enjoyed extraordinary success in what they called the "rollout" for the following week's State of the Union address, leaking proposals and policy tidbits to selected news organizations to create a sense of momentum for Clinton's lackluster second term. The president's approval rating was hovering at around 60 percent in the polls, and for all the scandalous headlines and political bumps in the road, the country finally seemed to have grown comfortable with him. McCurry and his colleagues had mastered the art of manipulating the press and were reaping the dividends.
And now, just when they thought they had survived the worst of the investigations and the harshest media scrutiny, the latest sex scandal had hit them like a punch in the stomach. They were reeling, depressed, uncertain of the facts but all too certain that Clinton's days might be numbered. The irony was inescapable: The president who worried so openly about his historical legacy, who staunchly insisted that Whitewater was nothing next to Watergate, might make history by following Richard Nixon into oblivion because he could not resist a lowly intern. For now, at least, McCurry and his colleagues could not spin their way out of this one. They did not know whether Bill Clinton was telling the truth about Monica Lewinsky, and some of them suspected he was not.
Copyright © 1998 by Howard Kurtz
HOW THE WHITE HOUSE AND THE MEDIA MANIPULATE THE NEWS
HOW THE WHITE HOUSE AND THE MEDIA MANIPULATE THE NEWS
Compelling, infuriating, often devastatingly funny, this is the story you should read before you pick up the newspaper tomorrow morning.