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Lanny Davis: Lessons from a legend

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OPINION l 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.

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 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.  

So I wasn’t surprised by the words McCurry used in the Washington Post piece on Sunday to explain the limits he had placed on himself when he was advising John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign in its closing days.

“I said, I’ll do it, but I don’t want to be a mad-dog, and say mean things about [President George W.] Bush and the other side. ...

This Christian thing has a practical application. A light bulb went off: We can have a serious debate in this country without always questioning the other side’s motives. It’s corrosive.”

He added: “You don’t need to blast your opponent every time they get a traffic ticket.”

Mike McCurry was the original purple voice that moved me to write this column, starting almost eight years ago, to try as often as possible to walk in the shoes of others, including nasty reporters, to see the world through their eyes, and ultimately to look for fact-based solutions to problems, often requiring mixing “blue state” and “red state” philosophies.

Today, McCurry is reminding all of us that it is possible to reconcile strongly held political views with scriptural values of decency, tolerance and respect for others.

If only today’s Republican and Democratic leaders and hard-core rank and file could remember that important lesson.

Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, in which he specializes in crisis management. He is the author of Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life.