In the annals of White House press history, Bill Clinton’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, will forever be remembered for opening the briefing to television cameras. It worked well initially from his perspective. There was just one cable outlet (CNN) in January 1995. The networks carried the briefing live only when there was a huge story, like the bombing that April of a government building in Oklahoma, and reporters asked fact-seeking questions in a sober, serious way.
Then allegations came to light in January 1998 about President Clinton’s relationship with a young intern named Monica Lewinsky, “and we were talking about blow jobs in the Oval Office, and then it (the briefing) went live,” McCurry recalled at a town hall meeting last week with members of the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA).
He was there to talk about First Amendment issues as the Trump White House experiments with barring routine live television coverage of the daily briefing, which had out-performed the daytime soaps in ratings with the beleaguered Sean Spicer at the podium. While they were entertaining to watch, the White House concluded the spectacle wasn’t helping Trump’s approval ratings.
McCurry had reached the same conclusion in 1998. “It’s performance art and theatre of the absurd,” he said. “That’s what it became, and it’s my fault and I acknowledge that.”
In an interview with the Daily Beast, McCurry said the day it really dawned on him that he had “created a monster” was when he entered the briefing room after the Lewinsky story broke and saw five cameras next to the stage by the podium. “And they were not there to film me. They were there to film the correspondents asking the indignant question.”
By then, Fox News was up and running, and the networks went live too. “So I’m standing there with sweat running down my face, and basically not saying anything, just repeating what the lawyers were saying.
“That’s when it became more of a theatrical event,” he says. “There was more posturing on both sides: the correspondents showing off to their executive producer how tough they can be – and me putting on a show.”
McCurry survived that rough period with his credibility intact by relying on good relationships with reporters that he had built over time, and taking his cues from the lawyers. One of his best lines: “I’m double-parked in the no comment zone.”
What saved him, he thinks, is that “I never got into the bunker and tried to defend the guy about things that we didn’t fully understand. Howell Raines wrote a blistering editorial in The New York Times that I was not living up to my taxpayer financed job by not answering questions.” McCurry talked privately to reporters, giving guidance, and he took some heat when columnist Roger Simon quoted him saying, “If there was a simple explanation, we would have given it already.”
He maintains that the briefing is not supposed to be a news event, that It’s a briefing, and reporters will take the content and test it against other sources of information. “Once it became a live television show, we lost what it was, and it became more of a political event,” he says.
McCurry recognizes that he’s made a “theoretical argument” about returning the briefing to what it once was, and he quotes his daughter, who works in television, saying, “Dad, that was the last century.”
Recognizing that we are in a “bewildering new world because of this president and his proclamations about fake news,” McCurry suggests reporters might respond to a president who isn’t holding press conferences with an organized social media response, “maybe a Tweet storm to fire back questions.” Trump has had far fewer public events in his first 150 days than his two most recent predecessors, Obama and Bush (230 versus some 300 each), according to Martha Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University who regularly attends White House briefings.
“People want information, and that briefing becomes that much more important,” says Kumar. “It has to be public and on television for us to have an informed public.”
The story of how the modern briefing evolved begins with Hodding Carter, President Jimmy Carter’s spokesman (but no relation) at the State Department, who allowed televised briefings during the Iran hostage crisis. They made him a star, and gave rise to ABC’s groundbreaking “Nightline,” which was created to count down the number of days America was held hostage.
When Clinton was elected and McCurry became State Department spokesman, the briefings were televised but with one important proviso: the entire briefing was embargoed until the conclusion. There was no live broadcast.
If there was some significant news made, the senior wire service correspondent could request a filing break. As a spokesman, McCurry could say yes or no. “I never said no,” he recalls. When he moved over to the White House as press secretary in January 1995, he missed the cameras. “They would shut the lights off after the first two minutes, and I could feel the energy draining – when you do TV, you get pumped up,” he recalled.
When two radio reporters came to him and said they were at a competitive disadvantage, that they needed sound, he thought they made a legitimate point, he had no objection. He went to Leon Panetta, then chief of staff, and told him he had a “little experiment” he wanted to try. Over the next three days, he let the cameras linger first for five minutes, then 10, then 20. Then he told the press assistant standing in the back of the briefing room that he’d give a signal when it was time to turn off the lights.
It was pretty seamless, and the cameras were there to stay.
The Clinton White House had experimented a la Sean Spicer with George Stephanopoulos, the boy wonder from the 1992 campaign, holding live televised briefings in the first weeks of the administration. It was deemed a disaster, and Robin Toner in The New York Times wrote that his final briefings with the White House press corps were “marvels of reportorial ill feeling and mistrust.” He gave up the job of Communications Director, and moved into the office closest to the Oval Office. Toner called Stephanopoulos, then 32, the “hip young icon of the new meritocracy” now a “symbol of arrogant overreaching and the administration’s shattered relationship with the press.”
The White House briefing room itself hasn’t changed much under the last six presidents, and whatever plans the Trump administration might have had about moving the press out of the West Wing are likely shelved at least for now. This is not the time to make big changes. But anybody who’s attended a briefing recently knows how overwhelmed the facilities are by the sheer number of outlets that want to cover the president.
That problem is not new; it’s just gotten bigger. When McCurry was press secretary, the Architect of the Capitol and the National Park Service showed him plans to excavate under the North Lawn and build a media center there. “I said, ‘the press will never go for it. Anything that moves them a foot further from the West Wing will not fly.’ It was very expensive, and the idea of digging up the North Lawn for a media center is not a winner.”
That was true then, and in Trump’s America, it's even truer.