If you think current White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has had some rough days, just ask former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry about the 1990s.
As the buffer between a contentious press and Bill Clinton from 1995 to1998, McCurry talked through everything from a government shutdown to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
He hasn’t entirely moved away from politics. He is a communications consultant and serves as a co-chairman on the Commission on Presidential Debates. He also recently took on the role of professor of religion and politics at the Wesley Theological Seminary.
In a recent interview with ABC News, McCurry opened up about his time with the Clintons, the future of the Democratic Party, and why he’s never once missed that podium in the White House briefing room.
Below is an edited transcript of the interview:
You served the Clinton administration through scandals, a government shutdown and a contentious Congress. In your mind, has Washington changed?
“There have been two significant changes that have had enormous impact. One is the continuing change in the technology of information and media and how the government provides information. There’s no longer kind of a controlling group of major media that set the tone for everyone else. The second change is that we’ve seen so much more polarization, bitterness and division in political vocabulary. I think, perhaps the two things are related to each other. I think the way in which the media has changed and the national audience has disaggregated into various camps. When I talk to some of my successors, people like Jay Carney or Robert Gibbs or Dana Perino, I am struck by how different the job the White House Press Secretary is now than what it was then.”
Some journalists have accused the Obama administration of being overly contentious with the press, with some saying it is the most secretive ever. What have been your observations?
“I am very careful about saying that there should be someone tampering with the First Amendment and the right of the free press, but at some point when people’s lives are in jeopardy because they are serving in the interest of the United States of America, that’s a serious issue. I think that’s a separate issue.
“The second point though is, belligerence towards the press is not going to do you any favors at the end of the day. There are two ways of dealing with the press corps at the White House. One is to beat them into submission. And the other is to recognize is that they’re there, and they have an important purpose and you better figure out a professional working relationship. Every White House, probably even me, I went back and forth between those two models on many given days. But when the relationship becomes too acrimonious, it’s not good for the American people. Everyone’s interests, in theory, are aligned. You’re trying to get good and accurate information out to the people. But I think there’s now a great deal of contention on which information matters most.”
The Monica Lewinsky scandal really broke on January 21, 1998. In your press briefing that afternoon you answered a barrage of questions but your famous go-to response was you “wouldn’t parse the president’s statement” up to that point. Would you say that was your hardest day?
“No. It was a hard day emotionally and there was so much drama and energy associated with it, but it was relatively easy because I didn’t have anything to say other than the statement I refused to parse during the course of the briefing. At some point in there I think I remember saying, ‘Guys, you are forcing me to double park in the no-comment zone right now.’ But that was important because, we the staff at the White House certainly did not have the factual information about what had gone on with Bill Clinton in his personal life. So lacking any additional facts, we didn’t want to add anything to it. I would honestly say the hardest days at the White House were the slow news days.”
You describe your role as a press secretary as being an “über reporter” — essentially one with unlimited access to all people and information. How did that change when the Lewinsky scandal broke?
“For all that I idealized the job, in that one instance I had to turn everything upside down and not do what I normally would do, which is try to get all of that information and get it out in front of the public. Because in that case, I would have exposed President Clinton to legal jeopardy from an independent prosecutor, certainly political jeopardy from people on Capitol Hill that were trying to undermine his presidency, and third, I would have exposed myself to legal jeopardy. Probably the third was the most compelling, because I had a young family and didn’t want to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills. Because if my answer to the question would be, ‘I just talked to the President, he explained everything to me, and here was his answer…’ I probably would have cost myself a quarter-million dollars in legal bills, and that’s not an idle estimate given what some of my colleagues had to pay over time.”
With the talk of another Clinton White House in 2016, what would your advice be to Hillary? Run or don’t run?
“My advice would be, to make the biggest difference, you can make in your life as you are now in your 60s. What she is currently doing with her husband and her daughter, is many great things to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. I could easily make the case that that’s more important and interesting work than running for President. She would make a huge difference in the future of our country, maybe doubly because she’d be the first woman president. But on the other hand, we’ve got the first black president and we’ve got the same gridlock in Washington and that would not change if Mrs. Clinton got elected. She’d go through an exhausting campaign, arrive in office at age 67 and have limited prospects of getting things done.”
After leaving the White House, you became more devoted to your faith as a United Methodist and have pushed for progressives to not be afraid to express their religious beliefs. With this week’s Supreme Court case with mostly the religious right pushing back against a provision in the President’s signature health care law, is it getting hard for someone to say they’re a member of the religious Left?
“I don’t think any political party should ‘take on religion.’ I think people in politics should reflect their faith. We’ve got these justices on the Supreme Court dealing with a very contentious issue in which the freedom to practice your religion is very much at stake. And they are all in many ways very faithful people. My point is, at least on the Democratic side of the spectrum, we should not assume that to be religious means you’re conservative and Republican. I think we should all look towards Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from Birmingham Jail, which is a letter written to white pastors about why they should use their faith in the name of political change. That’s the kind of example I think Democrats have lost sight of in recent years.”
Do you ever miss being at the podium?
“Not once. I mean it’s a very hard job and in many ways a very enjoyable job, but when your time there is done you need to learn how to turn off the lights and go home. I think people who miss it or continue to try and recreate it probably have a harder time with separation anxiety. I was glad that I did it, glad when it was over, and glad to move on to something different in my life.”
Some of the criticism of the presidential debates lately has been the absence of a third-party candidate. Is this a possibility for 2016?
“We put these debates on for, in theory, whoever is a major candidate which roughly translates to anyone getting more than 15 percent support in public polls. And we’ve got ample evidence, even from recent campaigns that there could be more than two. I think it is only a crazy person who would try to project what politics is going to look like in 2016 or who the candidates are likely to be. But the great thing about the media is that they love talking to crazy people.”