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Presidents, Take Heed: Listen to Your Press Secretary

It's always possible to look back and speculate that for want of some little thing - like a missing nail - a great difference has come about. I know I'm doing precisely that when I reach back into memory and pull up this thought: Had a freshly sworn-in president, Gerald Ford, listened to his press secretary before making a fateful decision, he might well have been elected two years later to a full four-year term.

If he had asked Jerry terHorst, the highly respected newsman who had just become the new president's press aide, whether he should pardon Richard Nixon, he would have received an answer that might have turned him away from a move that, overnight, plunged his presidency into unpopularity from which he never recovered.

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Mr. terHorst has since made it plain that he would have told Ford he believed it was morally wrong to pardon Nixon - that no one, not even a president, should be above the law and therefore free from accusations that he obstructed justice.

But beyond that, terHorst would have been able to warn Ford that a Nixon pardon would have exactly the opposite effect from what Ford anticipated. Ford later explained his decision by saying he needed to get the Nixon problem out of the way so that he could govern effectively. TerHorst would have told him that the pardon would - as it did - stir up so much anger among the public that the Ford administration would be permanently bogged down.

Maybe Ford knew he would get such an argument from terHorst. At any rate, he issued his pardon without telling his press secretary what he was going to do. And terHorst promptly - and rightly - resigned.

I'm convinced that, had it not been for that pardon, Ford would have been renominated without that damaging challenge from Ronald Reagan. He then could have beaten Jimmy Carter in a close election.

I was thinking of this the other morning when I dropped by the daily, early-morning press briefing President Clinton's press secretary, Mike McCurry, holds in his office. Some 30 reporters crowded around Mr. McCurry, who was fielding their questions from his desk. The Iraq crisis was just surfacing. How would Clinton react? Fast track trade legislation also drew some questions. And there were queries on a number of other matters.

But what I noted - and what has caught my attention at other times - is the civil tone of these sessions. Reporters obviously respect McCurry. Why? Because he's able to deal so intelligently with the most complex issues or problems. He also has a great sense of humor and is, therefore, able to quiet down heated questioning with a witty remark.

The news media know that he's an in-the-loop press secretary, someone who always is kept informed about matters relating to the president. There is additionally the all-important ingredient: McCurry is trusted by members of the press. They feel he tells them the truth, or as much of the truth as he knows.

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If Clinton had something like a Nixon pardon in mind, he wouldn't take action without asking McCurry his opinion. He would ask, too, how such an action would "play" with the public.

The Clinton-McCurry team is one of the best president-press secretary combinations I've seen. There are reports McCurry is thinking about stepping down. If true, it could be a severe loss to the president. That's particularly true with those troublesome matters in the offing: the Paula Jones case and whatever Kenneth Starr digs up.

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