By Maxime Fischer-Zernin.
In an article published this past January I chronicled the descent into anarchy of the White House press briefing during the last half-century. Comparing the Johnson and Obama administrations provided insight into the then and now, but in today’s column, I’d like to analyze the tipping point—the McCurry years—when the Monika Lewinsky scandal propelled the briefing from substance to showmanship.
Last month Alana Goodman of the Washington Free Beacon published her article “The Hillary Papers” – a report on previously unexamined notes of conversations between then-First Lady Hillary Clinton and her best friend Diane Blair. Hillary’s description of Monika Lewinsky as a “narcissistic looney tune” is all that most readers got from the article, an unwelcome revival of the exhausted scandal.
Few people are more tired of hearing about the infamous White House affair than Michael McCurry, then Press Secretary for President Clinton. He witnessed first hand the way the first couple dealt with the crisis, and was on the front lines of the media frenzy.
With years of experience dealing with the press, McCurry joined the White House in 1995 to continue his self-described trade of “flashdancing at the podium.” He came over from the State Department, where the briefings had been “substantive and exhaustive, with almost every correspondent holding an advanced degree.” He was understandably struck by the contrast he encountered at the White House where media trends often lacked any relation to issues of long-term importance.
McCurry was Assistant to the President, with full access to high-level gatherings. So much so that Leon Poneta and the President would interrupt Oval Office meetings to bring McCurry in to ensure he was prepared to face the Press. “I never felt I had anything but clear access to all the source material I needed,” including National Security Briefings. “Press Secretaries get in trouble not when they know something, but when they don’t know, when someone forgets to tell them.”
Access. Access. Access. That is why Mike McCurry remains one of the most popular White House press secretaries. “No one gives a rat’s ass what the Press Secretary thinks about an issue. They care what the President of the United States thinks.” McCurry’s access gave him the insight he needed to convey to the press the President’s true sentiments.
His popularity was also helped by his sense of humor. “I did a press conference with a bag over my head, telling the press corps that I’m going to do the briefing today as that anonymous source you quote all the time.”
Today, he warns, his joke would be all over Twitter and Facebook immediately and used as ammunition against the White House: “the job is totally different today because of social media.” The relationship between the Press and White House is “as poisonous and bitter as I’ve ever seen it.”
In particular, Obama’s strategy of blocking out the traditional press and reaching out to Americans directly through social media is “very, very, dangerous… There’s a lack of confidence people are getting the straight story so trust in government erodes. I understand the need to control the message, on the other hand, [they need to] balance that with making the press corps feel they are reporting with confidence.”
Unfortunately the lunacy of the 24-hour media networks and the wide reach of social media have created a system of information that incentivizes the White House to forego the press filter. McCurry admits he played an early role in the deterioration of the press conference by allowing cameras in. In fact he believes it was the biggest mistake he ever made.
“The State Department had been on camera since the Iran Hostage Crisis, but footage was embargoed for broadcast until after the briefing. At the White House they had began letting in the cameras for the first 2 minutes, [and] little by little we left them on longer until the whole briefing was opened up.”
“At first there was no harm done – the radio broadcasters benefitted from more audio clips, and TV was not an issue since CNN was the only 24-hour news network at the time.” But during the Monika Lewinsky scandal, allowing television cameras to film the whole briefing “turned the briefing into a news event” in itself.
The New York Times’ Peter Baker says, “McCurry believed the Press Secretary had two masters, the President and the Press.” McCurry’s appreciation for this dual-role is precisely what has made him a press legend. Little did he know, however, that by taking sensible steps to make the press briefing more transparent McCurry may have doomed it to irrelevance.
When I interviewed former White House correspondent Frank Swoboda he proudly mentioned that “Presidents come and presidents go… but we [correspondents] come with the House.” But as the White House continues to evade the press, and White House briefings continue their transformation into a circus, the future of the press briefing is uncertain. One thing is for certain, Michael McCurry was a key player in defining how the briefing has evolved, and what it will become.