Mike is Man Among Flacks

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WASHINGTON: At a breakfast in Washington last week, Mike McCurry was asked if it was de rigeur for a press secretary to lie to protect his boss. Typically, he opened with a joke: "Press secretaries cannot lie." Then he revealed the secret of success: truth was simply not his job. His term is that he is not "an original fact-finder." And if the President lied to him? "When there are prospects too horrible to contemplate, I don't contemplate them."

McCurry is not only earning his pay this week, he might consider running for office when this is over. His daily jousts with the sound-bite-seeking White House press corps have become the most consistent pleasures of this scandal, and he's survived them, integrity intact, by keeping his believability and that of the President (and of his legal team) in separate rooms. McCurry is unafraid to plead ignorance, or to blame the lawyers when legalities nudge him out of the loop.

But McCurry's job is still protecting Clinton, and a press secretary cannot be above doing a little foot-dragging. "McCurry's excuse for the President's silence so far is that they need time to get their act together, to avoid the missteps with records that occurred with the campaign records," says TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan. The problem is if that's McCurry's story, it's not a very good one. "This is not a records-intense matter," says Branegan. "Why does the President have to be so careful if he didn't do anything wrong?"

Don't ask McCurry; he wouldn't touch that one. That's why he's fun to watch: he's not slimy. He never wriggles, he never answers any question twice, and he doesn't take any guff from Sam Donaldson. And he knows how to work a room; Thursday, with the scandal in full swing, what were McCurry's first words to the packed briefing room? "Let's see, what do you want to talk about today?"