Mike McCurry: Using Humor and Honesty to Defuse Tension

by Bernie Swain

Mike McCurry, press secretary during the tumultuous Clinton years, shares how humor is a humanizing and unifying force, capable of defusing tension and rebooting a discussion.

I was born in Charleston, South Carolina. My Dad, William “Joe” McCurry was a country boy, but was also the first in his family to go to college. My Mom, Rosemary, grew up on a farm south of Indianapolis, in the little town of Franklin, Indiana.

Faith was important in our family. We were fairly ecumenical because my mother was a Presbyterian and my father was a Methodist. My first memories of church are of the Congregational Church in Redwood City, California, where I spent most of my childhood. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Congregational Church was one of the more liberal protestant churches in the country and was active in a range of political issues. 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?

After graduating from Princeton with journalism degree, I found myself jobless when a promised job at Trenton Times fell through.

This was in 1976, a presidential election year, and I got a job working in communications for California Governor Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign in New Jersey. That was my introduction to professional politics and throughout the 70’s and 80’s I was involved in a lot of races, most of them losing until George Stephanopoulos came to my rescue. When Clinton was staffing his administration, George said, “This guy has been around for a while and he’s got a great reputation, so he really deserves a job.” George then arranged an introduction to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who hired me as spokesman for the State Department.

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.”

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.

I tried to have fun in 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. This is how that happened: Before the daily briefing, the cameramen put an object on the podium to test their focus. They try to have fun with it; for instance they’ll put a pumpkin up on Halloween. One day, I came out for the briefing and found a brown paper bag with a face drawn on it on the podium. I thought, “This is irresistible,” and I put it over my head. Then I said, “Today’s briefing is from that senior White House ‘anonymous source’ that you folks always quote in your stories.”

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.

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. And some days I just needed a good line. I once called Mark Katz, who was Clinton’s joke writer, and said, “Man, I’m going to have to talk about oral sex in the Oval Office again, and I need something funny to get off the podium with.” So, after being bombarded with the same unanswerable question thirty times, I said, “Look guys, you’re keeping me double-parked in the no comment zone.” Everyone laughed, the tension broke, and I was out of there.

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.

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.

I left the White House at the end of 1998 and wasn’t involved in national politics again until 2004, when John Kerry called and asked me to help repair his shaky relationship with the press.

I told him that, while I would certainly take issue with President Bush’s positions and record, I wasn’t going to attack him on a personal level. I stuck to that pledge through election day. It turned out the other team noticed, and I have since become good friends with Bush administration veterans Mark McKenna, Dan Bartlett, and Nicole Wallace. So I know it can make a difference when people are careful about how they state their positions. “Never get personal” is my mantra.

After Kerry’s loss, I got out of politics. The adjustment to civilian life didn’t happen overnight.Little by little, my involvement in the church increased. I was on the board of the Wesley Theological Seminary, and I decided to enroll, eventually earning 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.”

For much of the past thirty years, I never fully grasped my apparent on and off relationship with the church. Maybe, I often thought to myself, it was the excitement of what I liked to call activism that kept me away. But now, I’d like to think I never really went away, but I was sent out into the world of politics for a reason.

Get more lessons from turning points and everyday life in Bernie Swain’s new book, What Made Me Who I Am. Available on Amazon and in bookstores everywhere.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *