Maher, Steve (SD-MS)
SMAHER at GI.COM
Tue Feb 17 13:20:00 MST 1998
'Telling the truth slowly'
McCurry discusses fears, strategies behind embattled White House
By Roger Simon
February 17, 1998
WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky
could end up being a "very complicated story" that will not be easy to
explain to the American people.
"Maybe there'll be a simple, innocent explanation," White House
spokesman Mike McCurry said. "I don't think so, because I think we would
have offered that up already."
In a wide-ranging interview that gave insights into the emotions, fears
and "tell-the-truth slowly" strategies of an embattled White House,
McCurry said: "I think it's going to end up being a very complicated
story, as most human relationships are. And I don't think it's going to
be entirely easy to explain maybe."
McCurry said one reason the president has been reluctant to reveal
details about his relationship with Lewinsky, except to deny it was a
sexual one, is the concern that others may use such information to
pressure people to twist the truth.
"The other danger here is there may be enormous pressure on people to
say certain things," McCurry said. "That's a very real concern our
A senior administration official, who asked that he not be identified,
said the White House is fearful that independent counsel Kenneth Starr
will "squeeze" people to attack the president, whether truthfully or not.
"The fear of the lawyers is that we will present this story here and
Starr will squeeze enough people to say, `Well, that's just not true' or
develop some way of impeaching the story," the official said.
That explains why McCurry is engaged in a strategy he calls "telling
the truth slowly."
"Yeah, this is a classic case," McCurry said. "We are not in a position
to provide a full and complete account, so the art is to make sure
everything we say is truthful and credible and that we do no disservice
to the truth in the time between now and whenever we can provide a
McCurry could offer no date when Clinton will provide that account,
except to say, "At some point, I assume that he will have to."
Last weekend, former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said: "At some
point he has got to tell the American people the truth of what was
behind this relationship. Obviously, there was something more here. And
it has got to be explained to the American people."
While several news stories have been written about the morale of White
House staffers during the episode, McCurry talked about Clinton's morale.
On the plus side, McCurry said, Clinton is fully able to carry out the
duties of his office.
"Clearly this is something that bothers him; it would be inhuman if it
didn't bother him, if he didn't show any reaction," McCurry said. "But
he has got enormous discipline and he doesn't allow himself to divert.
The last thing you expect to see around here is Bill Clinton walking
around the halls talking to portraits."
In their book "The Final Days," Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein quote
Richard Nixon's son-in-law, Ed Cox, saying that in Nixon's last days
before resigning, "The President was up walking the halls last night,
talking to pictures of former presidents -- giving speeches and talking
to the pictures on the wall."
"That's not who he is," McCurry said of Clinton.
On the downside, however, is an atmosphere in the White House in which
Clinton cannot trust some of his closest advisers out of concern that
they may leak information to the media.
McCurry told of being in Oval Office meetings with Clinton and only
five or six other people in which a certain subject would come up and
Clinton "would look around the room and he'd say, `We'll talk about it
McCurry said that the president does that when "he clearly doesn't want
a particular thought or idea to get into a wider circle for fear it will
kind of leak out or get written about."
"This is the White House at the end of the 20th Century," McCurry said.
"Not only a fish bowl, but the klieg lights are on all the time. It is
extraordinary. There is no zone of privacy."
That helps explain, he said, why "a lot of people (in the White House)
are completely disbelieving (of) the story that he carried out any
romance" with Lewinsky or anyone else.
McCurry said that he and other aides have access to the pantry in the
Oval Office where Clinton is alleged, in one account, to have groped a
female aide. McCurry goes there frequently to get coffee, he said, and
suggested that such traffic makes it unlikely Clinton would have sex in
the Oval Office.
"Because there is no privacy," McCurry said. "There is no way to do it
if you wanted to. That's why people (here) find it pretty implausible."
McCurry, 43, has been White House news secretary since January 1995. It
is his job to present the policies, plans, hopes and dreams of Bill
Clinton to the American people via the media. And, as he has pointed out,
to do his job he needs the trust of both the president and the press.
"You can only serve the president well if the press believes you are
serving them first and foremost," he said last year. "So you have to con
McCurry also understands how distrustful both sides can be of each
other. But one thing has shocked him about the Lewinsky controversy, he
said, and that is the glee with which reporters have pursued the
"I think what was shocking to me was the palpable excitement that you
could see in the reporters the minute they thought he was going down,"
said McCurry, who once wanted to be a reporter. "They thought they were
going to run this guy out of office and they got excited, thrilled by it."
McCurry said the climate of pursuit soon changed because Americans
rendered a judgment of "Knock it off and leave this guy alone," and the
president delivered a strong State of the Union address on Jan. 27.
"It was a combination," McCurry said. "The president strongly denied
(the allegations) and then he went and gave a speech that very clearly
connected with the American people and they said, `Fine, that's what we
want you to work on.' "
McCurry said he fears for the future of the news media. "If it ends up
that they have taken this nation on a joyride for no good reason, it
could very well do lasting damage to the institution of a free press,"
He also noted that the viewpoint he must take in order to function is
opposite to the one he believes the media take.
"In order to do my job and make it through the day I have to believe
there is some kind of explanation that is consistent with what the
president has said so far," McCurry said. "I can't believe any other
"The press, in order to do its job, to kind of stay energized with the
story, has to believe the guy is lying and he's a crook and, `We're
going to go out and work as hard as we can to prove it.' "
McCurry said a more responsible attitude on the part of reporters would
be to say: "OK, if the president has denied it and the American people
have said fine, that's OK with them, so let's go back to covering health
care and the tobacco bill and Iraq and we'll check in on this story
"It hasn't exactly worked that way," he added.
However, McCurry indicated that he and the president are capable of
sending a few none-too-subtle messages to the media. One went out during
Clinton's most recent news conference on Feb. 6. when he did not call on
a single reporter from ABC, CBS, or NBC. McCurry said Clinton's failure
to call on the major broadcast networks, which is virtually without
precedent, was no accident and was done on McCurry's advice.
"Part of it was TV correspondents have a one-track mind right now, so
we might as well go and poke around the room and get some other
questions," McCurry said. As it turned out, 11 of the 16 questions asked
at the conference had to do with Lewinsky or related matters.
McCurry, who near the end of last year went on two private-sector job
interviews, said he would be leaving the White House "sooner or later"
but would provide no timetable.
Asked if he still liked his job, he said: "It has its moments. But they
are becoming fewer and farther between."
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