The Magazine

SHOULD MCCURRY QUIT?

Mar 16, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 26 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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IF PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SECRETARY Mike McCurry seems calm these days, it may be because he has seen it all before. Seventeen years ago this month, McCurry's first boss, Sen. Harrison "Pete" Williams, a four-term Democrat from New Jersey, went on trial for his role in the Abscam scandal. Months before, Williams had been recorded telling an undercover FBI agent that he would help steer federal defense contracts to a titanium mine in Virginia in return for $ 12.6 million and a cut of future profits. Williams vigorously denied that he had been seeking a bribe, but the FBI tapes produced at trial were devastating. At one point, Williams can be heard telling the agent that it will be his "great pleasure" to "talk to the President of the United States about [the defense contracts] and in a personal way get him as enthusiastic and excited."


When the tapes became public, many predicted Williams would resign in embarrassment. Instead, he was defiant. Citing his high approval ratings back home, Williams and his staff did their best to pretend nothing had happened, even floated rumors that Williams might soon run for governor of New Jersey. Meanwhile, Williams's supporters, led by his steely, ambitious wife, mounted an attack defense on behalf of their man -- an "American Dreyfus," they called him. Mike McCurry, who by that point had been Williams's press secretary for almost five years, led the charge, accusing the prosecution of waging an illegal, out-of-control political vendetta against the senator. " The government framed him," insisted McCurry at the time. "The government created the crime and tried to create the evidence."


McCurry's explanation got a sympathetic hearing from professional conspiracist Lyndon LaRouche, who promptly produced a half-hour documentary in defense of Sen. Williams. (The senator later expressed "profound gratitude" for LaRouche's support.) Jurors, however, didn't buy it. Williams was convicted on all nine counts brought against him, including bribery and conspiracy. A Senate Ethics Committee inquiry followed, during which a sleeker Robert Bennett, acting as committee counsel, grilled Williams mercilessly. (Bennett was nasty even then: "You are a United States senator, right?" he growled at Williams. "Is that an unfair question?")


Williams's guilt was never seriously in doubt, and he went on to spend two years in prison. Yet it was not until months after Williams was convicted -- and close to a year after his role in Abscam was revealed -- that Mike McCurry resigned as press secretary. Though he had come to believe that Williams was unfit to be a senator, McCurry later explained, he couldn't bring himself to leave his boss in the middle of a scandal.


As it turns out, his association with Williams did McCurry little harm. (Not that he bragged about it: One version of his resume, provided to reporters in 1995 when he took his job at the White House, makes no mention of his five years in Williams's office.) In 1981, McCurry went to work as a spokesman for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Communications jobs with various other Democratic senators followed, as well as stints with the DNC, a lobbying firm, Bob Kerrey's 1992 presidential campaign, and the State Department. By the time the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted, McCurry had reached the pinnacle of political flackdom.


A press secretary has at least three constituencies, and after coming to the White House, McCurry came close to satisfying all of them: Regarded as believable by the public, he was simultaneously well-liked by the press and considered indispensable by the politician he worked for. Had he resigned two months ago, McCurry would have been remembered as perhaps the most successful presidential press secretary ever. The problem is, McCurry didn't resign, nor does he seem likely to. If he continues to work for the Clinton administration, Mike McCurry may be remembered as something else entirely.