Mike McCurry, who served as press secretary to former President Clinton, was featured in a news profile over the weekend, about him becoming a teacher in religion and politics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Northwest Washington as he earns his degree there.
Some people might have been surprised by this turn toward faith and to teaching, but I wasn’t.
I served with McCurry at the White House from December 1996 to February 1998. During those 14 months, I also came to know him as a teacher, not only about how to handle the press but about always relying on basic values of decency and respect for others.
These lessons were often hard to follow during my time as both a White House attorney and a media spokesman on controversial legal issues.
I remember one reporter for a New York tabloid newspaper who seemed so obsessed with blind hatred for Clinton that the facts no longer mattered. She once called me to give a quote for a story she was working on. When I read the story the next day, I thought she had placed my words into a misleading context that reinforced her own negative slant of her story.
I called McCurry and told him I had decided not to take this reporter’s phone calls again. There was silence on the phone. Then McCurry responded with a question: “So if you don’t respond to her calls, does that mean she won’t write a bad story?”
“I don’t care — she doesn’t care about the truth and it’s a waste of time for me to talk to her,” I said.
“This isn’t about you — just do your job and tell the truth and remember why you are here.”
So I did.
McCurry was a committed progressive Democrat and could be a partisan one when he was at the press podium. And he was the one to show me an important line I had to learn not to cross.
I remember receiving a call from McCurry after an appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” when I was vehemently defending Clinton and attacking the sincerity of pro-impeachment Republicans.
McCurry called me as I was leaving the studio. “You won’t persuade people if you are always attacking the character of your opponents,” he said. “You can give up a little and still use facts to win the argument.”
A few evenings later, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) confronted me in CNN’s green room and accused me of attacking independent counsel Kenneth Starr personally on TV. “You can challenge a man’s judgment without attacking his motives,” McCain said to me.
Wow, I thought. Back to back, from both McCurry and McCain, came the same critique. As I drove home, it struck me — the two “McC’s,” from both sides of the aisle, were right.