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interview: michael mccurry

photo of michael mccurry

As White House Press Secretary from 1995 to 1998, he was often what he called "the chum in the feeding frenzy," especially during the Lewinsky scandal. He left the White House in October 1998, joking to reporters, "Free at last!"

Interview conducted June, 2000 by Chris Bury

Give us a sense of what the White House press operation was like when you were brought in, and a sense of why you were brought in.

I think there was a lot of contention in the atmosphere in that the press operation wasn't always on top of what was happening at the White House, through no particular fault of DeeDee or anyone else, although she sometimes got slammed unfairly. I heard from a lot of reporters that this White House just seems to not really get what we do, or really doesn't care what we do.

So, I inherited an environment where there were some frayed emotions and feelings. The main thing I tried to do at the outset was to establish some measure of friendliness--well, not friendliness--amicability in the relationship. It's an adversarial relationship, but we try to make it a little more amicable.

Do you remember the advice you got from Marlin Fitzwater before you took the job?

He gave me a lot of very good advice. One that I failed to follow to my own detriment was that any time you're standing at the podium talking about the leadership of Congress, you're probably getting into trouble because you're being too political. His advice was to not be so rawbone political when you're standing at that podium.

He also gave you some advice, according to the Woodward book, that you should have your spies basically everywhere, that you really had to have a certain intelligence network.

Yes. Marlin is a great believer that you have to have your own system for verifying the information that you get. You ought to trust but verify. ...

The White House is a huge organization, first and foremost. It's a funnel point for a lot of the work of government, and we had, as all White Houses do, different people with competing agendas bringing their information in. You needed to make sure you knew what you were talking about and make sure you reflected other viewpoints and didn't just accept one version of a series of events or a speech or a new policy or something.

After the Republican Congress comes in in '94 and after a series of defeats leading up to April of '95, the president in a press conference declares, "I am still relevant." What was your take on what he said then?

We didn't listen carefully as a staff.  If we had ... to the way the president
struggled with the answer, warning lights would have went off. [about
Lewinsky]It's not the phrasing any of us would have picked. It was the idea that, in fact, we were trying to communicate. But it's like that old adage: You never stand up and say "I'm a funny guy." You tell them a joke and get the audience to laugh.

Particularly because of the Murrah Building [bombing] in Oklahoma City, he began to have some opportunities to demonstrate he was relevant and he was capable of really seizing back control of the agenda in Washington and doing battle with this new Republican Congress and defining the agenda for the country.

When he said that, you, as press secretary, what was going through your mind?

You just sort of say, "That's the one I wish I could have taken back." Because you just knew that would crystallize a lot of the feeling that the president had dropped off the radar screen.

Crystallized as a headline right away in your mind?

Crystallized as a headline in the press, saying this is what Clinton has been reduced to. He has to stand up and proclaim his own relevancy and he's the President of the United States. But remember, in a way, he was exactly right. The important thing was he began to get the opportunity to demonstrate that he was relevant and he clawed his way back out of that hole that he was in following the mid-term election in 1994.

Beginning actually with the election and through '95, the White House staff learns that the president is getting some advice that at first is secret advice.

From "Charlie," the code name that Dick Morris used when he called in to render advice. Long before the president introduced everyone to the idea that Dick Morris would be a member of the strategic team, it was clear that he was getting advice that he was taking to heart from some external source. And it was frustrating a little bit in the spring of 1995 to know that there was some other group of advisors or some kitchen cabinet or some process that was not part of the defined process of the White House.

It was frustrating and exasperating a lot of people, Leon Panetta especially. Finally, Leon insisted we get this process working coherently [and] bring whoever is on the team and make sure that we're getting the advice. At that point, Dick became more of a member of the campaign's strategic council, really setting some direction for the coming reelection campaign.

What was your reaction when you found out that the president had returned to this secret advisor?

I had heard about Morris before and heard amusing anecdotes about him, but I'd never met him. I really remember meeting him for the first time. He's an interesting guy, he's bright and there's no question about that. He's really got a very good strategic sense of politics. He has a very good feel for what really moves that part of the American--those who are not particularly partisan, not particularly wedded to either political party. They're up for grabs in most elections, particularly in national elections. He has a very keen understanding of them.

But I remember sitting there listening to this guy and saying, "I understand why Bill Clinton, the political animal, really finds this guy of some utility because he's really a brilliant strategic thinker."

At the same time, in a place where turf is so important--

Where turf is important and Dick has a unique interpersonal style, too. He's kind of a weird little guy.

As we're trying to get behind the cosmetics and really understand the nature of the argument he was making, Morris was making a right-on argument about where the center of the political spectrum was, where the high ground of American politics would be in the 1996 election. He helped Clinton define the ground we wanted to defend as an incumbent running for reelection in 1996.

As you were mentioning a moment ago, also in April, later, you have the Oklahoma City bombing. For a president who has been getting bad press really since the elections, what does this do for your--

It was a defining moment in many ways because it was the moment where we, all Americans, needed a president to come and help us understand this horrible event. We needed someone who would speak to our capacity to get beyond the tragedy, our capacity to think through the realities of the kind of world we live in where something like this could happen. We needed a president, quite frankly, to shut down some of the anti-Arab hysteria that almost swept this country. ... By Bill Clinton stepping in and filling that role more than adequately at that moment, that was a turn-around moment for his presidency.

Later that fall, the sort of seismic event is the battle over shutting down the government in November. For you and others on the staff, is there a moment there when you realized that you'd won or that you've got the Republicans on the run for the first time in a year?

He never got to where that press corps relationship was a comfortable one.  It
was always contentious, something always happened to make it less than the
easygoing banter some presidents have enjoyed. It may be no longer available to
any president.Not a moment. We weren't quite sure what the outcome would be. We knew we were going right into brinkmanship with Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress. We knew that the shutdown was going to have a very dramatic impact on the thinking of the American people. ...

But no one anticipated the degree to which the Republicans would be held responsible for shutting down the government, the degree to which people would respond favorably to some of the arguments the president was making.

Bill Clinton had not come into sharp focus for most Americans. Who is this guy? Where is he on the political spectrum? How does he relate to me and my needs? That was the moment in which they finally said, "He's fighting for things that I care about. He's standing up to these Republicans in Congress that want to take the country in a direction I don't believe in."

That was a very critical moment. ... It happened when most of the White House staff had been sent home. It was against the law for them to show up because under some federal statute they couldn't get paid and we had interns serving in staff positions, including the intern who came to deliver the pizza about that exact time.

We'll get to that later--

--since we're doing this chronologically. There's also a classic Washington story that serves to symbolize this whole thing for most Americans. Do you remember your role in getting out the story of Gingrich on Air Force One and whether there was a specific strategy session to take advantage of it?

To let people know that he had been whining about not coming off the front or something? I'll be honest with you. I don't recall a strategic point of view about it. Nothing happens that doesn't get noticed when the president travels or when you're out on the road like that. The [press] pool was watching very carefully what the chemistry and the reaction would be between Gingrich and Clinton. They noticed that he did not come off the front of the plane and I think they probably began making some inquiries about it.

I remember first hearing that the Speaker was a little bit peeved at his treatment from reporters. That's when the story came our way, rather than the story going out the other direction, is my recollection.

Do you recall how you used it after that?

No. I remember a lot of people thinking that they had flown back after a funeral that had some emotional toll [on] Bill Clinton. The feeling was that Speaker Gingrich had certainly stepped a little bit over the line.

One thing I do remember that had a very powerful impact in the White House was, either the New York Post or the New York Daily News had a big front page picture of Newt Gingrich as crybaby Newt or something like that. That circulated pretty quickly around the White House.

Do you recall the president's attitude during the shutdown and your conversations with him?

I was sitting there once again looking like a complete idiot because there
was no information that I had that I could use to answer obvious
questions.He was very, very keen on making sure none of us overstepped the bounds of what was legitimate, partisan commentary. He more often than not was trimming my sails when it came to commenting on Newt Gingrich and the Republicans. I had a more naturally, combative, partisan instinct and the president was usually the one who said, "Look, that's too over the top because I still need to negotiate with these people."

As Gingrich has said, as Lott has said, [I think the president was obviously] having some conversations back and forth with the leadership privately to try to bring the whole budget negotiation to some conclusion. And I think he was a little bit afraid. The Republicans used to watch our press comments and press conferences at the White House very carefully and, of course, vice versa.

The president didn't want us in front of him making policy. He wanted to be shaping the events and the conversations he was having directly with the people on the other side.

Do you remember a fight within the White House about that time on whether or not the president ought to cut a deal or whether he ought to stand firm?

I remember several. My memory is a little fuzzy now, but over the course of those days, there were several points [when the] government was going to slip over and run out of money and we were going to have to start closing down.

Each time that happened, there was some ... good, legitimate debate with people who had different points of view.

In January of '96, there is a new development on the scandal front, for lack of a better word. It's discovered that the [Rose Law Firm] billing records that had been subpoenaed by everybody had been discovered. Do you remember how you found out about that and what your thinking was?

I don't remember. I think I probably heard about it from a woman named Jane Sherburne, who was one of the legal counsels working specifically on the Whitewater matter.

One of my conditions for taking the job [as press secretary] was that I did not want to become the day-to-day point person for the press on Whitewater. ... We needed to have someone who would be the designated press contact on questions that developed out of the Whitewater independent counsel inquiry. We had almost a separate press operation to do that. I think it was from that team--Jane Sherburne, Mark Fabiani and those folks--that I first heard.

You could just roll your eyes and say good luck. There was a real easy way to portray the information negatively and the president's opponents did that. Of course, I don't think the press was willing to cut the White House, and particularly Mrs. Clinton, any slack on the suddenly discovered billing records.

According to the Woodward book, there is a pretty strong debate that breaks out about whether to make an announcement. And in the Woodward book, it says that you basically have to bludgeon the legal team in order to get the information out that they--

I remembered on many occasions, not just maybe that one particular instance, of saying, "You've got to get whatever factual information you've got on this out the door and you need to tell [the press] before they hear it elsewhere."

I don't remember what they actually ended up doing, how the story came out.

You send an explosive piece of information to the Republican Congress, it will most likely leak in very short order. So, why not tell the story yourself? Why not put the information out there so that it's coming from you and not from your opponents who will characterize it in the least favorable light. That argument happened over and over and over again.

There was a faction within the legal team that said, "That's just not proper. It's not proper for us to do it in public." It's strange. This had far less to do with political press strategy and much more lawyers who just have this kind of buttoned-up way of doing business. They felt like they should do it according to the book.

It wasn't until much later in the process where everybody at the White House finally figured out there is no way that this Republican Congress is ever going to treat any of the information coming from the White House fairly. It's going to be combat from day one.

That week, there was--Time or Newsweek, I'm not sure which--had the cover with Hillary and that weekend Bill Safire called Mrs. Clinton a congenital liar. How did Mrs. Clinton react to that?

I don't know. I don't recall having a conversation with her. I know the president was very, very angry about it.

Remember, Mrs. Clinton had been very badly bruised by the health care episode in 1994. By the time I arrived there in 1995, she was much less of a presence within the White House West Wing. She still had very good and effective staff. They asserted her interests on various things that were procedure-oriented within the White House, but she was not the kind of presence within the decision-making councils in the White House that she's described being in the '93, '94 period.

She didn't talk to you about the press treatment that we--

I would have interactions with her staff and I'd usually more or less express sympathy saying. Their attitude usually was, "Hey, a lot worse has been written about her." But it was the president who was furious. I took my cue from what he wanted to have said, less of what Mrs. Clinton wanted to have said.

What did the president want you to say? I remember the briefing very well.

I remember the briefing, too. I cribbed something that Harry Truman once said. I think he was reacting to a critique of a musical performance by his daughter. [Truman] said that he would like to deliver the response to the bridge of the nose of the critic. And that's something that stuck in my mind. It wasn't exactly what Bill Clinton told me to say, but it was close enough, expletive deleted. It worked just fine.

Now that you don't have to worry about a briefing, what was it the president wanted you to say?

It was not for family television. In the election, one of the issues that comes up fairly late is campaign finance. Gingrich and Dole are bringing it up every single day. You develop a strategy basically to keep the president away from reporters. Tell us about that.

It was a strategy born of necessity and it was not very comfortable because Bill Clinton enjoys the repartee and the interaction with the press. I think he would have preferred not to have an environment in which he couldn't do what candidates normally do.

But when there is a singular focus of a press corps that is 180 degrees different [from] the communication you're trying to have with the American people in the midst of an election campaign, there's not much you can do. ... I threw in the towel at that point.

The press wanted to focus exclusively on questions related to campaign finance. It was their big story. They chafed at the fact that Bill Clinton had coasted through the entire reelection campaign, remaining very ahead in the polls. They had never really gotten at him and the race [wasn't] as close as everyone had thought it would likely be.

The press corps collectively wanted an issue that they could use to put Bill Clinton on the griddle and cut him down to size a little bit and we just didn't make that opportunity available. It was painful for the press secretary, I'll tell you that. But it was also necessary. ... When you're in the final weeks of the campaign, the voters actually pay attention to the race and what the candidates are talking about and they listen. The candidates, because they have multiple opportunities to talk directly to the voters, can deliver their message that way. So, it's a flow of information. It's not like you're hiding in a bunker somewhere.

We just elected to have our conversation directly with the voters and not through the press corps and it was irritating to many of the reporters. Still is to this day.

Are you convinced that helped Clinton win?


Bill Clinton delivers his victory speech on election night 1996. (11/5/96)
I think we would have won anyhow. We would have won even if we had elected to confront some of these issues and dig in and try to unravel some of the questions that were being asked by, for example, the Riyadi family. If we had gotten into that, I think we could have weathered that storm and still have comfortably been reelected because, frankly, there was not much of a campaign developing in opposition to President Clinton.

So, we probably were better off being there than going back and forth about campaign finance. On the other hand, matters have only gotten worse since then. Maybe if we had paid more of a political price during the course of 1996, some of the practices that we're now seeing four years later would not have developed, because there's essentially no rules now at all covering campaign finance.

On the '96 election, as you say, your strategy was to keep the president from the press because of the singular focus the press had. In the wake of what were pretty rocky relations between this administration and the White House press corps, was this another insult for the press that turned out later to poison the well or hurt further down the road?

Clinton never got to a point where that relationship with the press corps was a comfortable one. It was always contentious and something always happened to make it less than the kind of easygoing banter that some presidents have enjoyed. It may just be impossible to create that kind of relationship now. It may be no longer available to any president.

It's too bad. I famously tried several things to warm relations between the press corps and the president by making the president more available in relaxed settings. None of it worked particularly well. The formality that comes into only having the president available in these public occasions and occasionally in press conferences, that might be the rule for the future.

But the truth is, there was just always a contentious relationship. There was not a lot of trust on either side. The press corps didn't trust Bill Clinton very much and Bill Clinton didn't trust the press corps to present fairly the work of his administration.

In '97, you say the major accomplishment is the balanced budget. Do you remember any particular moment that stands out or anything that the president had said to you that jumps out as an anecdote?

There was some sense that you really were redefining the center of the Democratic Party, ... a real sense that the Democrats finally owned the issue of fiscal discipline and could legitimately portray themselves as a party that knew how to use government but knew how to use it prudently.

The times in which you could really tag the Democratic Party with the label "big spender," "tax and spender," that that was going to go by the wayside, because we had demonstrated that a Democratic president, a Democratic White House would work to balance the budget.

Fast forward to January '98. How do you hear about the Lewinsky scandal developing? What is your first recollection? Was it Drudge over that weekend?

Yeah, it was Drudge over the weekend and information that was not taken very seriously at first because it sounded so utterly improbable. Early the following week ... Tuesday night, we hear that the Post is going to go with the story, that the three-judge court has authorized this new line of inquiry for the Independent Counsel's Office and it revolves around these allegations about a relationship with a young intern.

What do you find out about it and what do you try to find out about it?

I remember this. It's sort of the quality of being in a state of disbelief. The human instinct is to say, "Well, that can't possibly be true. That's more sludge from Drudge." That was the instant take on the story. So, we marched off looking for the ammunition we needed to knock the story down and, of course, it just didn't come.

We kept asking lawyers and others, "Where is the strong denial? We need to have a very strong denial." The president, as he struggled with the story the day that it broke, went through a lot of contorted answers in three interviews that he gave that day in which there were questions about which verb tense he had used. We were all looking at each other, saying "He didn't deny it strongly enough."

We didn't listen carefully as a staff. If we had listened more carefully initially to the way the president struggled with the answer, warning lights would have gone off.

My own personal reaction was--as it has been every time there was a matter involving allegations or scandal or anything else--is to tread very carefully. Rely on what you get from lawyers, because you cannot violate the president's rights by going to him and asking him what's going on.

If I had gone to him and said, "What's the deal with you and this intern?" and he had answered the question, that information would have exposed me to great legal liability. I would have been subpoenaed and the president would have forfeited the right to deal with this matter with his attorneys in confidence. It was a very, very awkward and hard situation.

Nobody wants to talk about it and yet you have to come up with some kind of denial. Once the signal from the president was that he was denying the story, then we said, "You've got to get in there and deny the thing with every ounce of energy you've got." Of course, that was bad, bad advice. He got that advice obviously from more than several of us.

Just to back up a minute in the storytelling of this. So, Tuesday night, you know the story is going to break. You make some phone calls. Wednesday morning, you see the Post headline. What is your gut, visceral feeling when you see that?

I don't think I want to describe what my gut was telling me to do at that point, because it had more to do with vomiting than anything else. But you read this and you said, this is incredible and it was hard to believe. It was hard to imagine that any of this amounted to anything other than sort of a weird bender that we were on for the day.

It was totally bizarre to be sitting there, looking at this paper, reading this kind of story about the President of the United States of America. You [wondered], what country did I wake up in this morning? I'm reading this about the leader of the free world.

So, you make phone calls and what did you find out?

We didn't make phone calls. We were quite accustomed to being in crisis mode. So, we were in crisis mode and everyone was methodically thinking about the things we need to do. Where is the president going to be publicly available to the press? How do we adjust his schedule given this story? Do we suspend some of these interviews that are scheduled to occur? Do we go ahead with them?

We had practical decisions to make and this was true throughout the whole period of 1998. There was a government to run. We had jobs to do. You know, we were not appointed by the president nor was the president elected by the American people to dwell on this very awkward personal story, this matter that was really about Bill Clinton, the man. It wasn't about Bill Clinton the president.

So, all of us had to remember that we still had to get up and report for duty and do the work that the American people expected of us everyday. That's how you get through something like that. You just don't get wrapped up personally in the story.

You say that advice was given to the president from you and others that he wasn't being forceful enough.

Right. I'm accepting your chronology, I think. But the story breaks on a Tuesday night. We go through Wednesday. The president gives some interviews on Wednesday that don't sound particularly convincing. He stumbles through questions in some of these interviews that had been long, long scheduled.

So, we then see where we are going. And I think it was Thursday that everyone convinces the president to get out there and be adamant about his denial. Of course, he had been hearing the same thing from his friend, Harry Thomason, and others who were there helping him through this very difficult moment.

Thomason comes in because, according to him, he thinks the problem is one of stage craft.

Yeah, right and [that we hadn't] found the right venue to be convincing about this matter. All of us were giving him the advice that it would best for you to go and confront this matter and demonstrate that you are passionately denying it. It was, as I say, very bad advice, given the reality.

Do you remember the first press briefing that you conducted on this?

I don't remember specifically the first one. I remember they all blend together to one period of torment that I'll never forget. I guess what I remember most about that briefing was walking into the briefing room and saying to myself, "There is no physical way to fit this many cameras and this many people into this room."

I remember almost laughing to myself saying, "This is definitely a fire hazard or this is an occupational safety violation waiting to be served on somebody." It was a circus. I certainly was not the lion tamer. I was there more as the morsel to be served up, I think.

Was your confidence somewhat shaken at this point, early on?

I think my confidence was shaken. I didn't have access to the truth. There were reasons for that that I understood. It wasn't because anybody was deliberately not giving it to me. It's because I think the lawyers were trying to assemble the answers to some of these questions. They were dealing with a very determined, aggressive prosecutor and we just didn't have facts.

Because we didn't have facts, we had this kind of flimsy little statement that I wasn't going to budge from and that's what I waved around as my only line of defense for most of those briefings.

Later on, as the investigation proceeds, first of all, Monica Lewinsky agrees to cooperate with the Independent Counsel. And you give a briefing in which you say the president's basically pleased. I remember Sam gave you a hard time about that. The president couldn't have been pleased at that moment.

But ... if she cooperates there won't be any problem because the truth is the truth. ... He lived with that fiction and allowed all the rest of us to live with that fiction, too. But you see the logic of it. If you're denying that you've had any inappropriate relationship with this woman, then of course you want her to cooperate to tell the truth, because that's the truth. So it was perfectly logical. The fact that no one was buying that had put us in the awkward circumstances that we were in.

The day before the president's grand jury appearance, there's a front-page story in the New York Times which hints that the president is going to change his version of events. What did you think when you read that story?

This is in August, fast-forwarding to August?

Right, right.

This was the most frustrating period I had as press secretary. There was a story in the New York Times with four bylines on it of all solid, good reporters, indicating that the president is about to change his story, that he's going to admit to a very inappropriate relationship with the intern, Monica Lewinsky, that he's prepared to accept whatever the consequences are for that.

I wandered all throughout the White House, talking to all the president's lawyers and all the president's men and women, trying to say, "Somebody has a media strategy here that I haven't been clued into." ... And not a single person took any responsibility for that.

In fact, everyone who is a likely source of that story specifically told me that they didn't give it out. In fact, some of them said it would be crazy for us to leak a story like that because we wouldn't want to give Ken Starr a roadmap in advance of the president's deposition.

But clearly someone did it. Or, what is entirely likely as well, a number of people politically trying to be helpful to the president started exploring with senior figures of the party. What if the president gives this kind of testimony? What would be the reaction? There was some attempt to take temperature.

And then from that, people thought they had some authoritative signals that the president was going to give X, Y and Z testimony. [Even though] the Clinton administration is often accused of having these clever strategies for dealing with the press, there was completely zero advance planning over the flow of those stories. There was a New York Times story citing four sources the following day. Bob Woodward has a byline in the Washington Post with much the same kind of take on what the president's testimony would be.

No one said to me, "You can go and confirm that story because that is, in fact, what the president is going to do." But of course, no one said you can't deny it either. ... So, I was sitting there once again looking like a complete idiot because there was no information that I had that I could use to answer obvious questions.

Did you at any time get the sense that the president was using this leak as a way to prepare his wife?

I don't know. That has been speculated upon as a possible theory. There may be truth to that, I just don't know. After the grand jury testimony and before he gives his speech to the nation, the president and you and a few others are in the solarium. Do you remember what the tenor of the conversation is on what the president should say and how that is going to be revealed to the public?

I actually was not in the solarium. At that point, I had talked to the president. Several of us talked to the president not long after he concluded his testimony. The question we were dealing with at that point was, "Do you want to go ahead and give this address to the country tonight?" He was very adamant that he did. I think he wanted some sense of finishing this awful day and getting on with his life and getting on to vacation with his family. And he wanted some finality to it. So, he wanted to give that speech.

Again, that's where we probably had not served him particularly well, because we didn't know the degree of frustration and anger that went into that deposition. You could see it much more clearly later when it became public. But at that time, because we hadn't participated in it, we really didn't know except for the read of his legal team how difficult it had been. Knowing that, we probably would have advised against trying to give a very important address to the country-

According to all the reporting on it--and maybe you weren't involved in the substance of it--there is a debate about how contrite the president ought to be.

There wasn't much of a debate on the White House staff. There had been some drafts that circulated. My colleague, Paul Begala, had done a very good job of sitting with the president and getting some sense of what the president wanted to have said. And the first couple of drafts that kicked around in the White House had it about right.

It was not about anything except the president having to go before the American people and acknowledge that he had been very misleading in the way he had characterized his relationship. Moreover, [he] had a real need to apologize to a number of people for his behavior and for the consequences of that behavior.

The president's anger about what he felt he had been put through led him to want to address the other side of the coin. What was the nature of this prosecution and the people who had been trying to get me? There wasn't a big debate in the White House, because really by the time it did boil down to the two or three people he was dealing with, he was again determined to say what he wanted to say.

It's interesting. For all the talk about how Clinton is guided by the spin-meisters and the cabala of advisors, this was a completely unvarnished version of what the president wanted to say. He knew he had to account for his own behavior but he really wanted to get off his chest some of the anger he felt about the quality of the Starr investigation. It was very genuine.

Of course, it was sliced and diced by the punditocracy. It was judged to be inadequate, because everyone said he needed to be much more contrite.

At what point did you realize that the president had misled you and that you had misled the press corps and, in turn, the American people?

It was in that same sequence of things. As you read these stories, you would have to be completely naive not to see that the president is going to move in this direction. It was that weekend before his deposition where we finally had to confront the reality that this had not been an entirely straight story.

I could understand the lawyers' explanation that there was a very complicated definition of sexual relations that went behind that finger-wagging. But it just didn't wash, because it flew in the face of what anyone would commonly interpret as being the meaning of those particular words.

There was, along with disappointment, some anger. ... Because Bill Clinton is such a good guy, as a person that you respond to at a personal level, I think he's been enormously effective in so many ways as president and he has such great capacity for leadership. The overwhelming sense that [he] blew this opportunity to do some extraordinary things for the country [was] the overriding emotion most of us felt as we went into that period.

According to the Woodward book and the way he describes it, after the Starr report is released, there is--in his words again--a primal scream of rage from you and others. I don't know if that's metaphoric or what, but tell us about when the Starr report is released.

It's kind of the opposite of a primal scream. You couldn't hear a pin drop because everyone was either reading the thing on the internet or reading whatever copies of it that were available. It's the quietest I've ever seen the White House.

A lot of people [were] walking around shaking their heads in disbelief at the goriness of the detail and some of the choice little items that are sprinkled in and out of that report. It was not an easy read.

What didn't you believe about it? I don't mean the details.

It was hard not to believe that factually they had buttoned up this. It's written in so much awful, awesome detail that you can't escape some of it. But I remember reading it thinking everything that was the least bit exculpatory had been diminished or pushed aside in favor of everything that would fit the theory of the case they were trying to build. There was certainly some exculpatory information that Starr ignored or suppressed or didn't treat with the same degree of importance within the report that would have led the reader in a different direction. It was written with procescutorial zeal, written to convince people that Bill Clinton was unworthy of being president.

At the same time, you have said it conveyed to you an enormous sense of recklessness on the part of Bill Clinton.

It did. It was inescapable that you would make that conclusion reading it, too. Look, once the president acknowledged that he had a very inappropriate relationship with a subordinate intern, a female employee of the White House, that's reckless enough. But to add the piling on of all these details just only compounded the sense that this was an awful episode for everybody on all sides.

That weekend, you and the political staff did not want to do the Sunday talk shows. Several versions have said, in fact, that you insisted the lawyers go out.

That's right. I don't think anybody felt, given the position that so many people had been put in the White House, that we could carry the ball that particular weekend. I think a lot of us, me included, felt like our credibility was pretty well shot at that point, which is not a good place to be if you're in the business of dealing with the press. So, we said fine to the lawyers. You guys go out and figure out how you make the case.

August 18th is the day that Mrs. Clinton, Chelsea and Bill, the famous shot where they walk out to the helicopter and there's visual distance there. You're on--

Bill Clinton holding on to Buddy for dear life is the way I remember the picture.

You're on the helicopter?

Yeah, I was there waiting to fly off on this happy family vacation. It was very, very awkward for so many reasons because we were all at this very stressful moment, saying goodbye to our families. Of course, I knew we were going to be right back in Washington two nights later, because we were going to take military action against the Osama bin Laden network.

So, we were simultaneously dealing with this really bizarre moment in the life of the White House and then also getting prepared to do what the president as commander-in-chief can do. You had all the tension associated with both of those things going on. And it was a pretty strange moment.

What was it like on that helicopter ride?

Look, the Clintons deserve more privacy than I've given them in some of my previous interviews on this subject and I'm going to be very careful here. I'll say this. It was a family that needed to really go through a healing process. For a lot of different reasons, including the fact that the president was dealing with a difficult decision that he had to make as Commander-in-Chief, it was a family that had not had time to really deal with this matter.

I pretty firmly believe that there had not been many conversations between the Clintons as a couple on this until they were able to get away and be by themselves. I don't know that. It's not for me to say that. If the president and Mrs. Clinton ever want to address that, that's their business. But that was my impression.

And so, it was a family you can easily understand needed desperately to have some quality time together and they didn't need a bunch of aides and the press poking at them.

From a news management sense--I think Carville was talking about this--was there a sense that the president had to be seen taking his medicine by the public?

It was just such an awful time that I don't think most of us thought about anything other than getting through the day and getting through what we needed to get through in order to perform effectively. We had a big test coming up. Remember we had a movie called "Wag the Dog" out. We knew that it was going to look completely improbable at this particular time we were striking out against a terrorist network. And yet, it was the right thing to do because we had good intelligence reasons for doing what we had to do.

We were much more focused on that, on the reality that we had a very serious piece of business that lay immediately ahead of us and there was no way to spin this story.

Anybody who thinks that we had some kind of public relations strategy on how to get through this just misses the point. This was a family that needed to get as far away from publicity as possible. They had to get out the door, get on the helicopter, get to Martha's Vineyard and then basically be by themselves.

And as you recall, we just shut it down. The president wasn't very visible. He wasn't out moving around Martha's Vineyard the way he normally was.

He wasn't playing golf.

He wasn't playing golf. I got in trouble at one point. I think he probably got a little bit lonely and he took his dog for a walk and wandered close enough that cameras could record the event. Then everybody went crazy because the president had been seen in public. But it was not by any design. It was just because the president wanted to take his dog for a walk.

That's a pretty lonely picture.

It was a very lonely picture. My guess is that it was a very accurate picture. Look, there was a lot of anger, a lot of emotion. That's for the privacy of that family and they can share with all of us whatever they want to share.

Can you characterize for us what Mrs. Clinton was like at this moment?

She was exactly like any right-thinking human being would imagine a spouse to be in a moment like that. She was hurt. She loves her husband. She respects the fact that her husband is right at that moment dealing with some serious business. She understands that, but all the enormity of that is really Hillary's story and not Mike McCurry's story. So, I'll let her tell it if she wants to.

Do you remember at what point that you let the president know that you're thinking about leaving?

I had already submitted my resignation long prior to this. [I] set my day for departing in October before these events and the president's testimony, learning that he had not been exactly straight with the White House, the American people on this whole matter. So, I was already sort of half out the door at that point.

Is there a point at which you're thinking, look, I can't leave now?

It's a good question. I think that when I finally left, I felt I was turning over to my successor an opportunity to get things back to normal. The theory that we had at the White House was the president would do well in the mid-term elections. The Republicans would drop the impeachment matter and we'd finally get back to the regular order of business as we went into 1999.

I think if someone had told me in October that the president will be impeached and there will be this historic process that's going to occur next year, I think I would have felt obligated to stay. But I just never believed that that was going to be the course that history would take.

How do you regard the historical legacy of this president--

Not to fault you, because I know you had to ask me this stuff, but we've spent an awful lot of time on the down side of the Clinton presidency. But I firmly believe this.

Twenty, thirty years from now, when people think back on this time in history, Bill Clinton will be a part of it. But what they're going to really think of is the internet. What has happened is a revolution in the way we communicate with each other, the way we do business, probably in the way we report the news and run political campaigns. It's all a part of the change that's occurring.

That happened on Bill Clinton's watch and it arguably may not have happened if the wrong set of policies had been put in place by this president. The new economy will be associated in history with this president and this time. And we don't understand it yet, but I'm firmly convinced that it's going to be more of the historical legacy than Monica Lewinsky.

The White House does have to perform these other vital tasks at the same time as you have suggested you were in the dark. How do you function in that environment?

The way many people functioned and got through that period was by doing the job that they were sent to Washington or sent to the White House to do, because an awful lot of work of government continued during 1998. The press was obsessed by Monica Lewinsky and, therefore, the three or four of us that had to deal with the press everyday had to have that as part of our portfolio.

But remember, 90 percent of the White House walked around not wanting to be anywhere near this story. They went about doing their jobs. The president got out there everyday and had a bill to sign or an announcement to make or an Executive Order to issue. Our goal was to have the president portrayed doing the job he should be doing as president.

The fact that we did that and that the trains continued to run on time is probably what helped rescue Bill Clinton from this political scandal. He got out there. He did his job every single day and the American people said, all right, it doesn't look like the guy is going to succumb to be self-pitying in the midst of all this. He's going to continue to do the job that we, the people, elected him to do.

How did you handle the constant struggle with the lawyers? You have a public affairs responsibility. They have a legal obligation to the president and throughout much of that year, you got to be at odds.

We set up a process for the political public affairs squad to sit down every single morning with the lawyers and just thrash it out so there wouldn't be mixed signals going out [and] we wouldn't go off on our separate tangents. We tried to cooperate, understanding that we had our job to do.

It was not always an easy relationship, but I do believe the lawyers were well-motivated and well-intentioned. I think they were not trying to mislead any of us on the staff. They just had a very difficult assignment in their province.

They were, after all, dealing with a very aggressive prosecutor. They were dealing with someone who was trying to arguably bring this president down. And that required certain things of them as lawyers. I understand that. I respect that even if it put me in some very impossible situations. That just was the nature of the beast.

Of course, I had to rant and rave and throw up my arms and threaten to quit and do all the things necessary so that we could get what we needed for our side. We all had to come together at the end of the day and march forward.

Since the scandal, some people have written, we've seen a new side of Clinton, more relaxed, funnier, more at ease.

Two thoughts about that, post-impeachment. Bill Clinton is now the longest surviving political figure on the scene when it comes to the ranks of leaders of the western democracies. He is, in a way, the titular head of that group now. Being a senior statesman, I think, puts you in a much different position.

He is more relaxed. I think he is more contemplative. I think he is thinking about the future and maybe looking back a little as he looks ahead. But there's a wistfulness to it. There's some sense that this is the Clinton that could have done so much more if we hadn't been dragged into all these other stories, some of our own making, some of his making, some [invented] by some of the president's enemies.

If we hadn't been subsumed in this culture of scandal so often, the Bill Clinton who is out there now, who is so much more relaxed and gregarious and in a way enjoyable to see, could have been doing so much more for all of us.

Does Bill Clinton worry personally about his legacy?

I never saw that. In fact, to the contrary, my experience up until the time I left in 1998 was that he really was adamant that people not think in that sense. He didn't want people to be retrospective. He wanted people thinking ahead.

His brilliance as a politician was that he was always making an argument about the future, the argument about where we were going to build the bridge going into the 21st century. That's what lent energy to his persona as a politician. And I suspect there's still more of that than there is the retrospective view.

I've seen a couple of occasions where he does seem to be a little more reflective. ... But I don't think he's obsessed with it at all. In fact, to the contrary, I think that one of his legacies is to really help everyone understand that politics is about the choices we make for the future. That's one of the reasons why he was so extraordinarily successful as a politician.

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