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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.

Well, then, which was it? he was asked. Are pro-lifers intolerant bigots? Or are they people following the dictates of their consciences? "We have a tolerance plank in our platform," McCurry said stubbornly. "The Republican platform plank on this issue is intolerant. And so is Mr. Dole."

Asked months ago about the president's position on Dole's proposal earlier this year to rescind the 4.3 cent-per-gallon Clinton gas-tax increase, McCurry again was pugnacious: "When are they going to address the question of how you pay for this? Are they going to cut Social Security? Are they gonna cut Medicare? Are they gonna cut education? Are they gonna cut environmental protection? I'll answer your question about the president's intentions when Senator Dole does."

There was a time in American politics -- it seems quaint now -- when the presidential press secretary was the spokesman for the American government, not just one party that elected a president with 43 percent of the vote. In his tenure at the State Department, where he was spokesman for two years before moving to the White House, McCurry practiced this doctrine -- and he does so now at the White House when the issue is national security or terrorism or foreign policy or something that eclipses party politics. "When he talks about those things he gets a different look on his face, he speaks in a different voice," says White House communications director Donald Baer.

McCurry himself does not rely on any distinction between foreign and domestic policy when asked about Republican complaints that he's been too partisan. To his credit, he concedes the criticism is sometimes valid. He suggests a couple of reasons why he behaves as he does. One is that until recently, the Clinton-Gore campaign had no spokesman of its own, and McCurry was constantly being asked questions better directed to a campaign press secretary. He also concedes that sometimes he just, well, blows it. "When you're out there answering questions five days a week, you're bound to commit a miscue from time to time."

But McCurry's primary answer is that those accusing him of excessive partisanship are ignoring the central context in which it exists, namely the invective directed at President Clinton. McCurry is obliged to counter.

"There are times when they are absolutely right that I sound too partisan," he says. "It's also correct that this president is subject to the most vitriolic, partisan attacks that any recent American has faced. . . . You have to step it up sometimes to just to defend against it."

Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson State University professor and the acknowledged expert on White House press secretaries, says she believes there is something to McCurry's explanation. "He's more partisan -- I was struck by that," she says flatly of McCurry, whom she likes a great deal. "It seemed so different from what he's like as a person. So I began reading about that and talking to people. And I think it's true that the partisanship of the national government is just much more intense than it used to be; it has leached into every level, including the White House briefing room."

Marlin Fitzwater, the subject of Begala's jibe, also believes that it's next to impossible for a White House press secretary to stay above the fray in an election year.

"Despite what Begala said, in terms of my background [as a bureaucrat], I was probably the least partisan press secretary in history. But if you get on that campaign plane, I just don't know how you avoid sounding that way, " says Fitzwater. "In hindsight, I probably should have stayed in the White House and sent someone else out with Bush."

There is one final factor at work with Clinton that affects McCurry's performance, however. Clinton has been known to berate his aides for the supposed transgression of not defending him strongly enough. And remember that McCurry wasn't even a Clinton guy when he came to the White House. So he took his cue from someone who was: George Stephanopoulos.

Before FBI agent Gary Aldrich's book ever hit the bookstores, Stephanopoulos had asserted that Craig Livingstone had been hired by deceased deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster, Jr., that Aldrich publicist Craig Shirley was an adviser to Bob Dole, that Aldrich was "a pathological liar," and that the book was a "Republican smear campaign."

McCurry followed suit: "It's fiction," he said of the book. "That's our position." Craig Shirley was "a paid adviser" to the Dole campaign, McCurry claimed. That happened to be not quite true, but really, what's the difference in an election year?

Asked last week if he thought there was anything to the Republican criticism of the president on the drug war or if it was all political, McCurry shrugged and said, "It's politics. You know, everything is politics now."

Carl M. Cannon covers the White House for the Baltimore Sun.