A spokesman who knows as little as possible


Mike McCurry is White House press secretary, responsible for giving daily "briefings" to reporters."Part of the White House strategy is to have me come out here every single day and bore people senseless with the answers that I give on this matter."

Mike McCurry, the man who has been in the front line while President Clinton tries to evade questions about Monica Lewinsky, likes to joke his way out of a jam. He stands at the lectern day after day, getting slashed and bashed, stubbornly sticking to his minimalist approach in fielding the most graphic questions.

Piece of cake, he says. "It's easier to do these briefings than on a quiet day," he says. McCurry says he is not in the inner circle of presidential advisers who are making decisions and sharing information about the scandal. To use the Washington terminology, he is "out of the loop". So, conveniently, the man who faces them every day - often, lately, on live television - is not much use to reporters.

What did the president mean by sexual relations? Did he give Lewinsky a dress? Hasn't he been lying about Gennifer Flowers?

"I think you all know the constraint that I am labouring under here, and you know, I don't want to belabour the pain and anguish I feel," he said at one briefing. "I am out of the loop . . . . I am not even sure on this matter there is a loop."

"When you say that you're out of the loop, who is in the loop to speak to the public?" a reporter asked.

"There is not a loop available for us to use to respond to these questions. I think that if there was going to be that loop, I would be in it."

"To the extent there's a frenzy, McCurry is at his best," says a Clinton adviser. "He has the ability to stay calm."

Most correspondents believe he knows more than he lets on. "He's never caught off guard by a question," says David Bloom, NBC's White House correspondent. "It's not impossible, but it's very difficult to push him beyond where he wants to go."

"He's really kept his temper in control; it's amazing," says Helen Thomas of United Press International. "You can't blame him for the self-protection of ignorance."

McCurry's straight-shooter reputation is such that journalists keep asking whether he really believes Clinton is telling the truth about Lewinsky.

"I feel absolutely confident in what I've said," McCurry says. Of course, he adds, "I have not said a whole lot on this subject."

McCurry deflects questions with witticisms. He rebuffed one reporter by saying he was "double-parked in a no-comment zone". Or he repeats himself, devising endless ways to duck:

"I'm not going to speculate on that."

"I'm just not going to parse the statement for you."

"I'll refer you to my transcript yesterday, which referred to my transcript the day before."

According to Jacob Weisberg of Slate, an on-line magazine, "McCurry is clearly doing what he can to remain loyal and at the same time avoid fibbing."

As the weeks have gone on, McCurry has criticised the media's voracious appetite, noting "the endless news cycle in which we get daily newspapers trying to beat the networks out in the public domain with information that's false".

Does he think the media will back down, given public disgust with press treatment of the scandal? "I doubt it, based on the behaviour I've seen in the last two weeks."

McCurry had made clear in recent months that he planned to step down soon, but the latest scandal has changed that. He doesn't want to be seen as deserting the ship. "It's a great job and I love it," he says. "Any thoughts I have about leaving have to be temporarily suspended."

Compiled with material from the Washington Post News Service and AFP.

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