Mike McCurry still has recurring dreams. They are like the ones people have about showing up at a final exam not having done the reading.
But for McCurry, who was the White House press secretary for Bill Clinton from December 1994 to August 1998 — from Whitewater through most of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, in other words — the dreams are slightly different.
“In my anxiety dream, I walk out to give the daily briefing and I don’t have my briefing book,” McCurry says.
The briefing book, which takes enormous effort to assemble each morning, contains the assembled wisdom, positions, acumen and sheer flackery of the Cabinet, the executive agencies, the White House staff and sometimes even the president of the United States.
It is all done — and the process often starts before dawn — in anticipation of what questions the press corps will be asking at the daily briefing and what messages the White House wants to convey.
As McCurry once told me, “the modern presidency is defined by the manipulation of the news flow 24 hours a day.”
McCurry was the first press secretary to allow the daily briefings to be televised, a decision he now regrets. In the beginning, the networks used very little from the briefings because the briefings, then as now, produced very little news.
But in 1998, Monica happened. And everything changed. The networks began televising the briefings live, and a technical but very important change took place. “The moment I realized I had made some kind of mistake,” McCurry says, “was when the networks started using two cameras — one to shoot the briefing (i.e., McCurry at the lectern) and a second one, right near my shoulder, to shoot correspondents asking the questions.”
“The dynamic changed,” McCurry goes on. “Now the briefings were television events rather than an opportunity to answer questions about the news.”
Reporters, especially television reporters, now could use the briefings to perform. The better their performances (which, in fairness, were mostly linked to a genuine attempt to dig out the news and determine the truth) the greater chance they had of looking tough and dogged during the afternoons and getting airtime that night.
“The networks would break away from their afternoon soap operas to present the real soap opera of Monica,” McCurry says.
Televised briefings also greatly enhanced the visibility of the White House press secretaries and their ability to cash in on that visibility (paid speeches, consulting firms, etc.) once they left office.
The current White House press secretary, Jay Carney, announced last week that he will be resigning in mid-June. That set off a spate of stories assessing his performance, especially his on-camera performance. Most agree that whatever Carney’s abilities, the daily briefing has become a trial by combat.
As early as last July, The New Republic published a piece by Reid Cherlin, a former White House assistant press secretary, who wrote: “The daily briefing has become a worthless chore for reporters, an embarrassing nuisance to administration staff, and a source of added friction between the two camps. It’s time to do the humane, obvious thing and get rid of it altogether.”
Reid quoted Peter Baker of The New York Times as saying: “The White House decided a long time ago that it’s not about candor; it’s about deflection and survival. The press decided it’s about preening.”
A few days ago, Reid wrote: “But whether docile or sneering, Carney was just doing what was expected of him, and — depending on where you sit — doing it quite capably. . . . He doggedly protected the president’s interests with the full understanding that doing so would earn him bad reviews from reporters.”
Exactly. As I wrote about Carney’s predecessor, Robert Gibbs: “Gibbs has one boss, and it isn’t the press. It’s the guy in the Oval Office.”
Press secretaries, standing up there behind the lectern each day, appear to wield great power. In fact, as with everybody else at the White House, their power is limited by the needs, desires and whims of the president.
“President Clinton used to watch, near as I could tell, the replay of the daily briefing on C-SPAN at 11:30 every night,” McCurry tells me. “And right after, I would get a call from him at home.” McCurry slips into Clinton’s soft Arkansas accent: “I thought you did a fine job, but you know, we could also use this.”
McCurry, who often began his workday at 4:30 a.m., was not personally bothered by the lateness of the calls. But, he says, “we had small kids then, and they would wake up when the phone rang.”
So one day, McCurry gently and politely told the president, “I always enjoy getting feedback, but not so late at night.” And then he explained about the children.
“I’m so sorry,” Clinton said.
“And he never called back at night again,” McCurry says a little wistfully. “I probably should not have told him that.”