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MCCURRYING FAVOR

12:00 AM, Sep 2, 1996 • By CARL M. CANNON
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Near the end of the 1992 campaign, Paul Begala, a Clinton adviser, said that Marlin Fitzwater was the most political White House press secretary in American history. Four years later, Republicans have decided that line has a nice ring to it.


"Mike McCurry is the most partisan press secretary in history," says Republican National Committee communications director Ed Gillespie. President Clinton's spokesman has brought droll humor, competence, and an atmosphere of civility to the White House briefing room. He has also brought his partisan reflexes, honed during years of laboring for Democrats in Congress, Democratic candidates, and the Democratic National Committee.


Those instincts, coupled with the Permanent Campaign mindset of the Clinton White House, have produced a daily briefing that is often indistinguishable from a Clinton-Gore press release, a DNC talking point, or for that matter an AFL-CIO attack ad. "A Washington press secretary is the nexus between policy and politics -- always," Gillespie says. "And McCurry is the most partisan press secretary in history because he's working in the most political White House in history. I mean, everything with these people is political. Their EPA holds Earth Day events in districts with vulnerable freshmen -- perfectly tracking where the AFL-CIO buys ads."


If that sounds simultaneously like a tough political counterattack as well as a backhanded defense of McCurry, that's because Gillespie is a longtime political flack himself -- and McCurry's Republican counterparts secretly like him.


"He uses irony, sarcasm, and wit in the political zone, but he has a deft touch when discussing tragedy or the delicate areas of foreign policy," says Tony Blankley, Newt Gingrich's mouthpiece. "The president doesn't really deserve the representation he gets from Mike McCurry."


Most reporters like the guy, too. He has fulfilled his promise, made his first day on the job, to bring some much-needed levity to a largely humorless White House press operation. He also returns phone calls, works hard, and doesn't wing it, which means what he tells the media is generally Clinton administration policy.


And yet, there's just this one flaw in Superman's cape. "It's better to talk to him away from the daily briefing," says ABC's Brit Hume. "It's clear that the White House has decided the briefings should be an aggressive exercise in salesmanship and argument -- and McCurry is conducting them accordingly. There are days when you think he'll tell you it's really night outside."


Helen Thomas, the venerable UPI correspondent McCurry sometimes makes play the straight man in his daily banter, speaks highly of him. But she has no illusions about whom he's really working for. "He's very partisan, but he understands our role," she says. "I asked him once if he'd ever lie to us and he said, 'No, but I'd tell the truth slowly.'"


Telling the truth slowly is a nice little euphemism for how the Clinton administration has talked about Medicare and the federal budget during the past year. And McCurry has done his part.


"The reason they're trying to slow the rate of increase [in Medicare], I suppose, is because eventually they'd like to see the program just die and go away," McCurry said on October 26, 1995. "You know, that's probably what they'd like to see happen to seniors, too, if you think about it."


That was beyond the pale -- and McCurry later apologized to Gingrich -- but he didn't suddenly become as evenhanded as C-SPAN's Brian Lamb.


"That was a sad thing to watch," McCurry told reporters two weeks ago after Dole unveiled his 15 percent tax-cut plan. "Bob Dole has devoted an exemplary career in the United States Senate to important principles like balancing the budget and living within our means. And it was rather sad to watch him humiliate himself by walking away from those firmly held beliefs."


Asked the next day about the Republican platform in San Diego, McCurry responded: "Mr. Dole has now embraced, indeed endorsed, an unrelenting, intolerant assault on a woman's right to choose." Later, in the same briefing, when McCurry was asked about language accommodating to pro-lifers at the Democrats' Chicago convention, he decided that those opposed to abortion were worthy of respect -- provided they were Democrats. "We respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue," he replied.