By Grace Masback
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Over the years, Mike McCurry has been a man of many hats — figuratively of course. Once a journalist and frequently the spokesman for important political candidates and elected officials, he was the White House Press Secretary during some of the most tumultuous of the Clinton years. Today, he is a partner at Public Strategies Washington, a D.C. public affairs firm, the Co-Chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, and he teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary. Overall, he has almost 40 years of experience in the national and Washington, D.C. political scenes.
The South Carolina native earned an undergraduate degree in international affairs and public policy from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and later received Masters degrees from Georgetown University and the Wesley Theological Seminary.
Interested in politics from a young age, McCurry was involved in numerous political protests, including passionate opposition to the Vietnam War. McCurry began inserting himself into the political scene in Washington in high school and college, and his ability to speak and write eloquently was soon recognized. He began his career as press secretary to the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources and to the committee’s chairman, Senator Harrison A. Williams, Jr. In 1981, he became the press secretary to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat from New York.
In 1994, he was tapped by President Bill Clinton to work as the White House Press Secretary (or as he calls it “über reporter”), managing interaction with the media in some of the Clinton administration’s most tumultuous years, including the shut-down of the federal government, the Whitewater controversy, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
As press secretary he was known for his dry humor and articulate management of the press, notably joking in the wake of the infamous Taco Bell Liberty Bell hoax that the federal government was also “selling the Lincoln Memorial to Ford Motor Company and renaming it the ‘Lincoln-Mercury Memorial.’”
Since leaving his post as press secretary, McCurry has served on the board of numerous political organizations. As the Co-Chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, he has been lauded for his efforts to ensure that the debates are informative, fair, and equitable to all participants. He has been vocal on the topic of the diminishing world of traditional media in a world of emerging technologies and social media.
Since his time in the White House, he has also embraced exploration of the intersection between politics and religion via both teaching and his own studies, ultimately asserting that faith can help to save “the frozen tundra of today’s politics.”
I recently had the chance to sit down with McCurry, who is now 61, to talk about his professional trajectory, the current state of political discourse, and the importance of young people engaging fully with the political system.
- When did you decide that you wanted to go into politics? What made you consider politics as a career?
I always loved politics growing up, but I thought I’d start my career as a journalist. I worked my way through college as a campus correspondent for the local newspaper, but then my job fell through and I ended up volunteering for the presidential campaign of California Governor Jerry Brown (in 1976!). That was my first job as a press secretary and I loved the mix of working with journalists and working for politicians. I made a decent career out of that for the next 35 years.
- How did your education help you pursue that career?
My education, I guess, was ok. I went to a good school and studied political science and international relations. But learning to write well and quickly was probably much more important to my future career. I also learned that education is a life-long pursuit, so I went on to get two master’s degrees.
- What were the major differences between your work in the Senate, on political campaigns, for the DNC, and in the Executive branch?
The main difference was working in a highly-charged political environment on campaigns and at the national political party and then working more substantively on policy and issues when at the State Department, the Senate, and the White House. There is always a mix of politics and policy in those jobs, but the balance shifts depending on the workplace.
- What was the most difficult thing about your role as White House Press Secretary?
Getting good information and making sure it was accurate was always the biggest challenge. The big danger is someone forgets to tell you something you should know, so you have to seek out information constantly and make sure people are sharing what they know.
- What should be the role of religion in modern political discourse?
Well, we pride ourselves on separating church and state and giving every citizen the freedom to worship as he or she sees fit. But most faith traditions have some version of a “golden rule” – you should treat other people the way you expect to be treated. Love thy neighbor as thyself, and all that. Our politics would be very different if people subscribed to that rule.
- How did you get involved in the Commission on Presidential Debates?
My boss when I was at the DNC was Paul Kirk, who was one of the co-founders of the Commission. He asked me to join the Commission and to succeed him eventually. It was a great thing to happen in my career.
- How do the Presidential debates contribute to the electorate’s decision-making process?
The debates don’t usually convince a voter to cast their ballot one way or another since many have already made up their minds by the time of the debates. But they do help give voters reasons to stand up for the choices they make. And they help frame the agenda that the person elected president will pursue once in office. In that sense, they play a very critical role.
- What can be done to get more young people involved in politics and to increase civic engagement more generally?
I think young people, high school students especially, don’t realize how much power they have. A well-organized group of young voters could probably march in and take over most meetings of local Republican or Democratic party meetings. The problem is that many candidates for office don’t speak to issues that young people care most about because they believe young people won’t vote. So they talk about things that matter more to older voters. If young people become more active and use their power, I think we’d hear more about issues that young people care about. That would be a refreshing change in the tone of our politics, I think.
- Looking back, what advice would you give to your high school self?
I guess I was too much of a political junkie. I wish I had studied more art, music, poetry, and spent less time as a student government weenie. I also wish I had spent more time getting to know kids who were really different from me. I hung around with the crowd you would expect – student body president types. There were many more interesting kids at my high school that I wish I had gotten to know better. I also wish I had realized that my parents were not as dumb as I thought they were in high school. My dad died a few years ago and I wish I had spent a lot more time with him when I lived at home before I went away to college.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore