press secretary

Mike McCurry – Finding Religion and Humor

by Bernie Swain

Mike McCurry was Bill Clinton’s Press Secretary, at a time when that position was much different. Here he details how humor is a unifying force and finding religion helps him fight for the common good.

My family has always had a deep commitment to politics and public service. We talked about the issues of the day around the dinner table. I never saw the government as the enemy; I saw it as an ally.

There was no cynicism in our household. My Dad was a committed Democrat. After he retired he became active in politics and was on the executive committee of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Since you could fit the entire party in a phone booth, it wasn’t as impressive as it sounds.

Faith was important to our family. My first memories of church are of the Congregational Church in Redwood City, California, where I spent most of my childhood. There was a deep commitment to racial equality, to the common good, and to helping people who were trying to help themselves.

I got involved in political activism and found that I really enjoyed it. Ironically, this caused me to lose some of my interest in church. Activism was exciting; I felt like I was making a difference. Who needs the church for that?

I went to Princeton, where I majored in journalism and worked as a campus correspondent for various newspapers in the mid-Atlantic area, including the Trenton Times, which was owned by the Washington Post. I thought I was going to be the next Bob Woodward.

Finding Politics
In 1976, a presidential election year, I got a job working in communications for California Governor Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign in New Jersey. Brown joined the race late but actually managed to beat Jimmy Carter in New Jersey and California on Super Tuesday. Carter narrowly won Ohio, and the next day, Chicago’s powerful mayor, Richard Daley, endorsed Carter, effectively ending the race.

During the campaign, I met a lot of connections that led to my first job in Washington, as press secretary for the Committee on Labor and Human Resources. I went on to work as press secretary for a couple other Senators.

A String of Losses
I met my wife Debra and we married in June of 1984 so I could work in the fall on John Glenn’s presidential campaign. He was out long before we married.  

Then I worked for Governor Bruce Babbitt, who was getting ready to launch his presidential campaign. That didn’t go so well. The same thing happened with Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey in 1992. In fact, I led Debra through an unending series of losing campaigns until we got to Bill Clinton in 1996. I think I’m now one-in-fourteen on the presidential campaign front.

Even though I had an unfailing ability to pick the losing candidate, George Stephanopoulos came to my rescue. George then arranged an introduction to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who hired me as spokesman for the State Department.

Getting Noticed by the White House
At that time, the White House daily briefing wasn’t televised, but the State Department briefing was. The Democrats got shellacked in the 1994 midterm elections, and, soon thereafter, there was a reshuffling of the White House staff.

Hillary Clinton told me that one night she and Bill were up late – Bill was doing a crossword puzzle, and she was watching C-Span, which was broadcasting that day’s State Department briefing. There I was.

Hillary said to Bill, “Now that’s the guy you should have at the White House.” Bill, who always wanted to show he knew more than she did, answered, “I know McCurry all the way back from when he worked for Bruce Babbitt.” Hillary loves to tell me that story, and I’ve always had a soft spot for her. Not just because she’s an extraordinary woman, but because I give her credit for my move from the State Department to the White House.

Of course, first I had to meet the president.

Getting the Job
Going for a job interview at the Oval Office is, to say the least, an intimidating experience. I guess I did okay because I was named press secretary in December 1994.

I was nervous about my first briefing in front of the White House press corps. President Clinton introduced me and said, “Take it away, Mike.” I looked out at the crowd and realized I knew just about every one of those reporters. And because I prided myself on being fair and honest, most of them trusted me. I relaxed, made a few opening comments, and then took questions.

Humor is Humanizing
I tried to have fun on the job, which meant not taking myself too seriously. I did a lot of stupid-press-secretary tricks. I once jumped into the White House pool fully clothed.

Then there was the time I began the briefing with a paper bag over my head.

You probably couldn’t get away with these kinds of pranks today; the partisans on the other side would flood social media with criticism.

That’s a real shame because humor is a humanizing and unifying force, capable of diffusing tension and rebooting a discussion.

Humor has actually been a serious influence in my life. And it certainly came in handy with the press corps.

The Days During Scandel
Then, in January 1988, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. It was obviously a press secretary’s worst nightmare. The goodwill I’d built up over the years helped me endure some of the tougher moments.

The Lewinsky days were rough, though. The news was not good, and I had to manage it. But I also respected the press and knew it was their job to uncover the facts. Balancing those two – at times conflicting – agendas was and is the trickiest part of the job.

As press secretary, your job is to keep the president happy; after all, he signs your paycheck. But if you don’t keep the press happy, you’re unable to engage them in an authentic, professional way.

There were plenty of times when White House staff admonished me for not being a strong enough advocate for the president. My typical answer:

“Yeah, but our position is bullshit and everybody knows it, so don’t make me go out there and put up a pretense.”

That honesty gave me some credibility with the press.

Finding My Way Back to the Church
During that tumultuous period, I had the great advantage of returning home every evening to the little town of Kensington, Maryland. It kept me grounded. We lived (and still do) across the street from our Methodist church, where today I’m a lay leader.

Debra and I began our family in 1990. It was when my children came along that I found myself drawn back to the church. I wanted to share with them what my parents had shared with me: a belief in working for the common good.

Little by little, my involvement in the church increased. I became a Sunday-school teacher and realized just how sketchy my understanding of the Christian faith actually was. I eventually earned a Master’s degree in theology. At first it was an intellectual exercise, but, as my education deepened, I saw how the scriptures call people into service and community. A more intuitive, emotional understanding of Christianity took hold.

This has become the foundation of what I hope to contribute in the twilight of my career. It inspires me to realize that, even though Washington is so dysfunctional, there are ways in which we can be guided out of the mess, to a place where the common good becomes a common goal.

We all need to build relationships across the aisle. This takes personal engagement. We can’t continue being so hyper-partisan and mean to each other all the time. It’s poisoning the well, and I believe presents a real threat to our nation. As President Lincoln said at another crucible in our history, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

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