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MCCURRYING FAVOR

12:00 AM, Sep 2, 1996 • By CARL M. CANNON
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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?