July 24, 1998
After three and a half years of answering-- and sometimes not answering-- reporters' questions, White House press secretary Michael McCurry has announced his resignation. Mark Shields, Paul Gigot and the NewsHour historians discuss the challenges of answering to both the president and the news media.
JIM LEHRER: Mark and Paul are joined now for some perspective on presidential press secretaries from three other NewsHour regulars: Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and Journalist/Author Haynes Johnson.
A RealAudio version of this week's Political Wrap is available.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
January 29, 1998
An analysis of the press coverage of the Monica Lewinsky investigation.
Browse the NewsHour's Media coverage.
First, Paul, anything special to be read into McCurry's leaving right now, do you think?
Why leave now?
PAUL GIGOT: I wouldn't say too much. I think he would have left earlier, frankly, had it not been for the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It's an enormously taxing job, very, very difficult, hard on your family. He's got young kids. I think he wanted to get out, but he didn't want to get out at the height of the crisis, because that would seem to be abandoning ship at a bad time, and I think now he says-I think he thinks things are a little more normal. And he can-even if they're not over-but there's a routine down. And he wouldn't be seen as jumping ship and in troubled times.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way?
MARK SHIELDS: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: That there's-don't read any leaves on this. He's just tired of it
MARK SHIELDS: Mike McCurry planned to leave after 1996. Mike McCurry is not the kind of person who says I want to spend more time with my family, even though he does. He has-Paul's absolutely right-he's a devoted husband and father. He knows the names and birth dates of his children, unlike a lot of people in Washington. And he is-he is somebody who wanted to leave, and I think he sold the idea that things have steadied now. I'm not sure things have steadied now, but he's certainly giving that strong impression. He does-Jim, one thing that's absolutely remarkable about him is he's been the first press secretary in the modern era, I mean, of the Internet, of the 24-hour news cycle, and he's handled that with just incredible-I mean, no one-there was no model for Mike McCurry. I mean, Michael Beschloss in his book of Kennedy and Krushchev pointed out that when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961 when John Kennedy was president, it was eight days before the Kennedy administration or the White House even commented on the Berlin Wall dividing East Berlin and West Berlin. Now, how about today's 12-minute news cycle? That's what Mike McCurry did it-with great-good humor, judgment, and candor.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, take us through the progress. How did we get to Michael McCurry in terms of the institution of press secretary?
The modern press secretary: regarded with suspicion.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, in recent times, it really began probably about 65 years ago when Franklin Roosevelt and the press began to get larger and you began to get a greater expectation largely because Franklin Roosevelt was the first really powerful president of the modern era. The late 19th century you had powerful speakers and powerful congresses, not a huge amount of news came out of the White House of Benjamin Harrison, for instance, so there was a great deal of pressure on Roosevelt's people to give information. But Roosevelt had an easy time, and so did Steve Early, his press secretary, as Mark was mentioning. There was no Internet, no 24-hour news networks, morning and afternoon newspapers, but the other thing that made it easy was that there was a general expectation that what a president said and what the people around him said was likely to be the truth. And that was the case until the late 60's and early 70's. And what's made it so brutalizing for someone like McCurry or the other press secretaries of the modern era is now reporters and others in the media regard what is said with a great deal of suspicion. There isn't that kind of relationship that there used to be, and it can make being a press secretary almost a survival game.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Doris, what would you add to the history?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I go back a little bit further. While it's true that Roosevelt and Steve Early as the press secretary of the first modern relationship, you can back to the turn of the century when you had the rise of the mass market media. Until that time you had party press essentially, so there was no need for a press secretary, because the President had his own party press that he would listen to, but when Cleveland came into office and he got married in the middle of his office, he was followed endlessly in the middle of his honeymoon by reporters. And he got so angry they were looking into his room, they were figuring out what he had eaten in room service with his bride the night before, that he appointed a person sort of to protect him from the press. And that person gave regular briefings. And then when Teddy Roosevelt came along, he was really his own press secretary, because he gave his own photo opportunities, called up newspaper editors, and then it is true when FDR came along, it got institutionalized, and you had a permanent press secretary. But the interesting thing about Roosevelt is that even though Steve Early was there, Roosevelt still was the chief spokesperson. Unlike today, he gave almost 1,000 press conferences-two a week-so you didn't need to have somebody standing up like McCurry does today, giving a briefing every day, because you had access to the president. That would seem unprecedented today. And then, of course, when you get into the late 50's and 60's and television comes, you get those first televised press conferences. It's wonderful to remember that when Eisenhower gave his first press conferences, his press secretary was able to edit unflattering segments out of the script before it went on television, until, of course, the first live ones came under John Kennedy. And I think then you go all the way up to now and you need to protect the president even more because of this 24-hour cycle and because of the hostility that's grown, which is greater now between the press and the President. So the press secretary becomes a different character than he was in the past.
JIM LEHRER: Protect the President, Haynes, is that the number one function of a press secretary?
What's the top priority for a press secretary? Telling the truth or protecting the president?
HAYNES JOHNSON: No. It's not supposed to be at all. It's supposed to be to tell the truth to the American people, Jim, and I just say, just by way of disclaimer, I am totally biased in favor of Mike McCurry. He was a student of mine at Princeton, so, therefore, take what I have to say with a grain of salt.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Okay.
HAYNES JOHNSON: There's the disclaimer. But it has changed so much-you remember when Arthur Sylvester was the press secretary in the Pentagon-and the horror in the journalistic community when he said the government has a right to lie-horrors. We couldn't believe that. And, in fact, we now have this thing about stone wall cover-up, spin, that terrible word, "spin," which is another way for lying or not telling the truth or disimile. I think what McCurry said in the clip that you gave there just a while ago s the perfect testimonial for the role of a press secretary. (A) He's got to have access; (B) He's got to be truthful; and (C) He's got to remember his job is not just to try to please the reporters or even to protect the President but to represent views of the United States faithfully and fully. I think Mike's done that.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. But how would you describe the protecting function, Michael, through the last several-the more modern press secretaries?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It's become much, much tougher because there is not only this expectation that presidents might lie, and that is something that is really a product of recent times, and also the presence of scandal that has been so much with us over the last 25 years through so many of these presidencies, and so the confrontation has become much more the case than the opposite has been. And so the result is that you've got presidents who are always expecting press secretaries to improve their images, and then the press, of course, who want total disclosure and the fact that you can have a Mike McCurry, who leaves office probably with a great deal of credit from his President and from the press, that's a rather remarkable thing.
JIM LEHRER: That is remarkable, isn't it, Mark? I mean, press secretaries-I mean, the modern press secretary is so identified with the president now-everybody-oh, yes, he works for the public, but let's face it, he works for the president, right?
MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely. I mean, Mike McCurry-and somebody will have to explain this at some point-he had more trust than the president he served on the part of the press corps. And yet he was seen as both candid and loyal, loyal to Bill Clinton-
Mike McCurry: "Candid and loyal."
JIM LEHRER: Candid and loyal.
MARK SHIELDS: --and yet candid in dealing with the press. I mean, it's an amazing, amazing personal achievement., and not to be understated in any way. I think what strikes me as most remarkable about McCurry is that he's not an overnight success by any means. Mike McCurry had an independent identity in Washington. He had worked. He had learned the humility of defeat working for presidential candidates John Glenn in 1984, Bob Kerrey in 1992, Bruce Babbitt in 1988. He was with Sen. Pete Williams of New Jersey, the first casualty legally to the ABSCAM scandal. And he'd been through it. He'd learned them all. He was with Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, so he came independent from Bill Clinton. He came as a battle-scarred veteran with his own identity, and to Bill Clinton's credit, even though he'd worked for Bob Kerrey in 1992 in a campaign that got tough at times, Clinton did reach out and did heed 'em.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, you have-yes.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I was going to say part of the legacy is this incredible thing for McCurry, different from all other press secretaries, because of the scandal climate, he has to acknowledge that he doesn't want to know all the things that the President's talking about, i.e., involving the scandal, which is candid, honest, wonderfully refreshing, and also frustrating because we don't know what that truth may be.
JIM LEHRER: Is that the function of a press secretary, though, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: No. And I think just to dissent a little bit-I'm a big admirer of Mike McCurry too-but to dissent from the canonization , I think the last eight months have been very difficult and a blot on his otherwise very good record, because he's had to basically say I am the spokesman for a president who won't speak about this scandal. He's been the spokesman for everything in the White House, except for scandal, and in a White House which has been an awful lot about the defense of ABSCAM. He basically had to stand up and say I'm Sergeant Shultz, I know nothing.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
PAUL GIGOT: No wonder he separated from the President.
JIM LEHRER: Doris.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, you know, there's an interesting counterpart to this, which look back on Powell when he was the press secretary for Carter-
JIM LEHRER: Jody Powell.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Jody Powell-when the Iran-they were trying to free the hostages, and there was a big discussion in the White House how much should we tell the press secretary, but suppose he gets asked a question that he can't answer, and they decided to tell him everything. He had to go before the press. He denied on a certain day in April that they were actually going to be rescuing the hostages. That very day the plan was launched, and then he later had to tell the press, "I lied to you." He said, "I had a two-sided obligation: one, to protect the President, the other to give information truthfully." And I felt protecting the president and the hostages in the national interest was more important, so it seems what McCurry did in the beginning was to say I don't want to know this stuff so I can't have to lie to you.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Michael, who are some other press secretaries who deserve special attention?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, we always think of Jim Hagerty, the former New York Times man, who served Dwight Eisenhower for eight years. There's a story that is told where Eisenhower asked Hagerty to sell something to the press and Hagerty said, "I tell them that, I'll catch hell." And Eisenhower came around his desk and put his arm around Hagerty and smiled and said, "My boy, better you than me." And that's a lot of what Hagerty did for eight years, but he had a pretty easy client-Dwight Eisenhower-who was beloved and who was treated extremely well. I think probably a somewhat underrated press secretary will be Marlin Fitzwater, who guided Ronald Reagan through the last two years of his presidency at the time of Iran-Contra, and also George Bush during a time of great controversy as well.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, what names would you mention?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, I would agree with Marlin Fitzwater the same way that Michael just said, because he did a wonderful job in a quiet time, but also he did it with dignity. Hagerty, I think, was the best of the old school newspaper types. Now we have the television business professional people. McCurry comes out of that background, a political person with PR. Zeigler had the most unfortunate time because of the Nixon-
JIM LEHRER: That's Ron Zeigler, yes.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Ron Zeigler. And the rest sort of merge in my memory. George Reedy-- poor George was brilliant and wonderful for Lyndon Johnson, but he didn't have full access and knowledge, and then of course was consumed by the Vietnam War and the problems of that period. So I think there's a mixed record all the way down the line.
JIM LEHRER: Do you have some names, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I just have a slight dissent from my good friend, Paul, and that is Paul said-
JIM LEHRER: That was three questions ago but go ahead.
MARK SHIELDS: I don't think the beatification or the canonization proceedings for Mike McCurry-and Lord knows, I've had enough disagreements with him-but I think it is a testimony to the esteem in which he's held and has been held by a very suspicious, a very skeptical press corps, the White House press corps, that they permitted him, that he had that kind of sensitivity that they said okay, you are not an independent fact finder on this scandal and they just switched all questions to that. They didn't drop it. They gave it to Lanny Davis; they gave it to Mark Fabiani; they gave it to people and to the President's own personal lawyers. I mean, David Kendall and Bob Bennett became spokesmen in the sense, and I think it enabled McCurry to remain an effective press spokesman, which his taking over that would have absolutely crippled.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, you want to say something?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I want to add one thing very quickly, that there's another process here-fear of being subpoenaed in this White House, which is really unprecedented and having to sort of in hock to your family and your career is something that affects all of them, and we're going to have a legacy of that one down the road, not just from press secretaries.
JIM LEHRER: You're nodding your head, Michael.
Shrinking access? Shrinking trust? Shrinking information for historians?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think that's right, and it's going to be very hard in the future I think for press secretaries perhaps to have the kind of access that they have in recent times because if you have the specter of subpoenas and legal action over the White House staff in the future, you might further sort of poison this relationship and make it even more difficult than it's been in the 80's and 90's.
JIM LEHRER: Makes you not just a spokesperson; it makes you a person involved in the action, is that what you're- Doris, do you see it the same way?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, it's going to make it harder and harder for those of us who are historians and biographers, because some of the good literature came out from Jim Hagerty, from these various people who had access, kept diaries, were able to write about it. But now, in addition to being fearful of being subpoenaed. There's the worry about keeping a diary, keeping letters, anything that will allow you to be used in a criminal proceeding, or even a civil proceeding, so the whole thing is never going to come out in that quite easy way that it once did. And I think we'll suffer as historians and as people of the future trying to look back on the past.
JIM LEHRER: Well on that sad note, we will leave it. Doris, gentlemen, thank you.