The Tough Job of Being the Face of the White House

In resigning as White House press secretary, Scott McClellan is leaving a job that at least one predecessor says is harder now than it ever has been. Mike McCurry, who served as President Clinton's press secretary, has some advice for the next spokesperson for the White House. McCurry is currently a principle of Public Strategies Washington.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Mike McCurry spent three and a half years as White House press secretary during the Clinton administration, answering and deflecting questions. And he'll answer some of ours now. Mike McCurry, thanks for being with us.

MIKE MCCURRY: Great to be with you.

BLOCK: Can you give a sense of how good or bad a job you thought Scott McClellan did?

MCCURRY: I think he did the job that George Bush wanted him to do. They don't have, maybe, the same attitude towards the press that we had in the Clinton years, where we tended to try to mollycoddle them a little more. But his job was to go out every day and very clearly and very firmly, in a disciplined way, provide one message that the White House wanted out on that day, and I think he succeeded. It was not always the easiest thing to watch, because he didn't have a lot of answers on other questions, but I think that's the way George Bush wanted the job done.

BLOCK: Does that complicate the job, do you think, for a press secretary, if there's a White House that is so famously secretive? It really, it seems to limit what they can possibly say.

MCCURRY: It doesn't give you a lot of room to move and groove. You have to stand there at the podium and basically get shellacked by the press corps that's not satisfied with the information that you're providing. But I think Scott had very thick skin, and he knew that that was his job, so I think he leaves with head held high.

BLOCK: You were a press secretary at the beginning of the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal, and you've said many times that you made it a point to not know too much. Of being able to say, I'm not in the loop on that one, creating a kind of buffer zone of information, really.

MCCURRY: That was an anomaly. I think most of the time the press secretary is only as good as the information that you have, that you provide, and it has to be very reliable for the press corps. Because if you get caught transacting in bad information or things that just end up being wrong at the end of the day, you pay a huge price for it. And I had that episode, because it involved President Clinton's personal behavior I successfully took myself out of the loop. But that's not something I would recommend as a strategy for surviving in that job.

BLOCK: Well when you see Scott McClellan getting caught up in statements that he made in front of the press corps, saying, you know, Karl Rove and Lewis Libby were not involved in the Plame leak, for example, do you figure, this is a guy who's out of the loop? He's been lied to? Or that he's actually lying to the press?

MCCURRY: Well, I don't really know, but you could tell from body language, by the quotient of squirming, that he felt very uncomfortable that he had not been given reliable information by people he worked with. And I just imagine that he regrets having been put in that position.

BLOCK: You've talked about how good a job you think Scott McClellan did at, sort of, repeating the party line and, in a sense, stonewalling. But I wonder if one thing he didn't have was a real silver tongue that could really sort of mollycoddle the press, or at least make them think he was giving them more information than he actually was.

MCCURRY: Well, I don't, I have to be honest, I didn't watch enough of his briefings to get a full flavor of that. But one thing that is true about that job is that it is less and less a place in which the public information is the thing that rises to the top. That was true during my time, I think it's been true during Scott's time, too. That the relentless need to shape the message gets in the way sometimes of just providing the raw, accurate information that allows the press to do its job and allows the American people to be well informed. And I think it's time to rethink the whole job of press secretary. We've got better ways than kind of a 19th century formula for getting news out in the 21st century information age.

BLOCK: How would you rethink it?

MCCURRY: I think I'd use a lot more technology, a lot more publicly available information in the web. Less dependent on one person answering questions, and more dependent on a lot of experts who are all throughout government being available to answer questions from the press.

BLOCK: Do you think that, that the job as press secretary now is harder than it was when, when you were there?

MCCURRY: I do. I think there's a, it's been so bitter and so poisonous here in Washington, the political environment. It's become much, much too acrimonious. And I think that is a dangerous thing. And hopefully the next press secretary will be able to even things out a little bit.

BLOCK: Well, I was going to ask you for the next press secretary coming in, whoever he or she may be, any words of advice?

MCCURRY: It would start with talking seriously with the president about maybe opening up a little bit, and being a little more transparent and trying to work a little more comfortably in this testy relationship with the press. But that can only be done if the president is willing to see that kind of job done. Every press secretary ultimately is a creature of the president that is elected by the people, and so it'll have to start with George Bush really getting a different attitude.

BLOCK: Mike McCurry thanks very much.

MCCURRY: Thank you.

BLOCK: Mike McCurry was White House Press Secretary during the Clinton Administration. He is now a communications consultant in Washington.

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