MOMENTS AFTER STRIDING TO the podium in the cramped White House pressroom, Mike McCurry realizes this is going to be what he calls a kitchen sink day, when reporters pepper him from all sides with a numbing array of questions. For more than 45 minutes, Bill Clinton's press secretary sweats it out under the television lights, fielding queries about the Administration's affirmative-action policy, shake-ups at the FBI and U.S. policy in Bosnia. By the end of the session, which he conducts each day at 1 p.m., McCurry's face is flushed and his crisp collar wilted. "That," he confides back in the safety of his office, "was hot!"

Taking the heat is nothing new to the voluble McCurry, 40, who in 10 months on the job has brought a human and sometimes humorous touch to running the shark-infested White House pressroom and feeding its 70-some demanding denizens. While serving the needs of reporters ("He always returns your calls, and he never lies to you," says USA Today correspondent Susan Page), McCurry has also managed to put a positive gloss on the actions of the Clinton Administration—and such a negative tarnish on its Republican opponents that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole recently called him "nothing but a hatchet man." Unabashedly partisan he may be, but most Washington insiders credit McCurry with adding credibility to the Clinton Administration's communications operation and helping to nudge the President's approval rating up 10 points, to nearly 50 percent. "I think my principal goals are to tell the truth, give Americans a window on the White House and protect the President—and to do all three simultaneously without tripping on your tongue," McCurry says.

His job is a workaholic's fantasy. "He is under constant pressure," says CNN White House correspondent Wolf Blitzer. "Whenever you walk up to his office, there are 30 or 40 phone calls he has to make." Concedes McCurry: "It's hard work. I'm not an expert on anything, but you have to be substantially on top of things in this job." He has toiled especially hard to overcome the perceived shortcomings of his predecessors—George Stephanopoulos, who was deemed too combative, and Dee Dee Myers, who never seemed to have access to Clinton. "He has the credibility to give us the good and reliable information that lets us do the work," says Blitzer.

Of equal importance, says Page, "Mike has brought a sense of humor and goodwill that is really beneficial to both sides." Weeks after arriving, McCurry held a Friday night Battle of the Beers, with correspondents' favorite hometown brews on offer. Clinton stole the show when he turned up to schmooze, armed with his own entry. "The President won hands down," laughs Mary Ellen Glynn, McCurry's deputy, "with a terrible beer from Arkansas called Hog's Brew."

McCurry's self-deprecatory style and corny puns are legendary. In his prior job as State Department spokesman, he delighted his audience and infuriated the Iranian government by referring to its beheading of 12,000 pigeons during a crackdown on gambling on illegal bird races as "news most fowl, from a regime most foul." On the road with the President, McCurry kiddingly claims numerous cities as his hometown, thanks to his father's peripatetic career as a public health official for the Centers for Disease Control. Joe McCurry moved wife Rosemary, Mike and his younger brother David from South Carolina to Pittsburgh, Lansing, Mich., and Chicago before settling in the San Francisco suburb of Redwood City in 1964.

There, in junior high school, McCurry got his first taste of politics, working on Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. He was devastated by the candidate's assassination. "It was good to learn early that politics can break your heart," he says. But, idealism still intact, McCurry was among a handful of white students to voluntarily help desegregate the nearby, predominately black Ravenswood High School in 1971. "He wanted to be in a multicultural society," says a longtime friend, Palo Alto Mayor Joe Simitian, adding, "There is no Saint Mike about the guy."

As soon as he graduated from Princeton in 1976, McCurry went to work in the press office of Sen. Harrison Williams, a New Jersey Democrat. Five years into the job, he saw the seamier side of politics: His boss was caught in the FBI's Abscam sting, indicted for taking kickbacks and forced to resign. "It was hard to keep your loyalty to your employer but continue to see that the press got the information they needed," he says. "It was a rough experience dealing with a scandal where your boss is involved and your career is going down the tubes."

After serving as an aide to New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, McCurry began what he calls "my unblemished series of losing campaigns"—working as press spokesman for Democratic presidential also-rans John Glenn in 1984, Bruce Babbitt in '88 and Bob Kerrey in '92. Because of the Kerrey campaign's sniping at candidate Bill Clinton's draft record, McCurry says, "My assumption was I would not work in the White House." But his achievements at State eventually made him the prime candidate to replace Dee Dee Myers.

In a White House famous for its late hours, McCurry ducks out by 7:30 p.m. and heads for the bungalow-style Silver Spring, Md., home he shares with wife Debra Jones, 36, a former congressional librarian he married in June 1984, and their three children—son Will, 4, daughter Marjorie, 2, and 6-month-old Christopher. An early riser, McCurry starts reading through a stack of briefing books by 4 a.m. His kids often join him by 6. "I get them breakfast," he says, "and if we catch it right, they will watch a half hour of The Lion King before going up to wake Debra. She gets a half hour more sleep."

By 7 a.m., McCurry's white 1994 Ford Taurus, complete with two kiddie seats in the back, breezes into the White House parking lot. He retreats to his office near the pressroom to plow through the overnight wires before attending the daily 7:30 a.m. meeting of top presidential advisers.

Then it's off to a day of jousting with his unruly charges in the pressroom. On the podium, McCurry takes a swipe at Republican provisions in an appropriations bill. "You might describe them as pork," he says, "and they will oink appropriately." Another soundbite sure to make Dole's blood boil—as well as the next day's Washington Post.

DAVID ELLIS
GARRY CLIFFORD in Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Garry Clifford.