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Jewish World Review / April 24, 1998 / 28 Nissan, 5758

Roger Simon

Roger Simon McCurry and the kids from the ‘hood

WASHINGTON -- If White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry thought the next generation of journalists was going to be any easier on him than the current one, 21 kids from Chicago public housing disabused him of that notion this week.

Crystal Medina, 15, who lives in scatter site housing in Ravenswood and wants to be a TV reporter someday, hit McCurry with a high, hard one the first chance she got.

Standing up in a auditorium in the Old Executive Office Building, only about a hundred a garbage profession yards from where McCurry had just briefed the White House press corps, Medina read her question in a clear, determined voice: "What are the differences and similarities between Watergate and the Monica Lewinsky scandal?"

Sam Donaldson would have been proud.

And Medina got back something Donaldson probably would not have gotten: a real answer from McCurry.

"Well," McCurry said, taking a deep breath and answering her question as seriously as she asked it, "there's a big difference. I was about the age you are now during Watergate, and your government and the president of the United States broke criminal laws and broke into people's homes and targeted people on an enemies list.

"For all you have read about President Clinton's quote-unquote 'scandals,' there has been nothing that has approached the magnitude of those crimes. This has to do with what the president has been alleged to have done with a White House staff member and a woman a long time ago."

But McCurry, who in front of White House reporters often treats information as if it were rationed, was only warming up.

"And Whitewater," he said, "is a little piece of land way down in Arkansas that people have given up investigating, and they have moved on to sex. I'd explain Whitewater, but I don't understand it myself.

"Watergate was a break-in of the Watergate Hotel, and 16 people broke the law. In this, except for minor players, nobody has been accused of breaking the law, though the press doesn't always give them the presumption of innocence."

Afterward, Medina was asked what she thought of McCurry's answer.

"I thought it was pretty ... OK," she said, demonstrating the reserve for which journalists have become famous.

Medina is part of a Chicago Housing Authority program, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, that is training public housing youths to become journalists. The students range in age from 14 to 17 and for the last three months have been trained by professional journalists in Chicago. So McCurry was a piece of cake for the kids.

Another someday reporter stood up and said: "Mr. Press Secretary, has press coverage of the scandal hurt the office of the presidency?"

"It's hard to say," McCurry replied. "We don't know where it will end up. Some would say most Americans are saying we approve of the job he is doing regardless of his personal life. If that holds up, fine. But it is hard for anybody to deal with this over time. Ronald Reagan had a scandal; George Bush had a scandal. Scandal is becoming part of the permanent culture of Washington."

McCurry was accompanied by top presidential aide and native Chicagoan Rahm Emanuel. Before they entered the auditorium, which was considerably more plush than the briefing room real reporters have to use every day to get answers from McCurry, McCurry turned to Emanuel and said, "I want to tell them where you grew up in Chicago."

"The 49th Ward," Emanuel said.

"These kids won't know where that is," McCurry complained.

"Don't count on it," Emanuel said.

And the kids did seem to be up on a variety of topics, including foreign policy, national politics, gang violence and knotty problems of American life for which there seemed no good answer.

"Why do suburban schools get better treatment than urban schools?" one student asked.

"They have more money," McCurry said. "It's been an issue that's been in and out of the courts. It's one of the greatest disparities that exists in our society. One thing we try to do here is devise programs that draw communities closer to their schools."

"Schools need both resources and parental and neighborhood involvement," Emanuel said. "It's what Mayor Daley is doing in Chicago. It's a one-two punch. And it gets standards back in the schools."

Both McCurry and Emanuel took pains to answer the questions, all of which were serious, in a serious manner. "I didn't want to talk down to them," Emanuel said afterward. "I thought that would be a mistake."

"The CHA is a microcosm of what goes on around the country," Emanuel told the students. "In order to combat violence, we need a tough crackdown on gangs and guns. We need a visible police force. We need outside groups, including the church, involved. And we need a policy of one strike -- commit one serious crime -- and you are out, out of public housing."

But not all the talk was gloomy. McCurry sounded an inspirational note on, for him, an unlikely topic.

"To give something back to your community, there is no better way than to be a journalist," McCurry said. "Think about ways you can impact the lives of people and write about that. Being a journalist is a noble calling."

Then, he seemed to come back to reality.

"And it is a profession in need of help," he concluded.


4/23/98: "NOW" should change its name to "THEN"
4/20/98: Freedom to be a jerk?
4/14/98: Bill is Hef's kinda guy
4/7/98: South African memories --- and a paradise not yet found
3/24/98: Bill's 12-day safari
3/20/98: Peace for Ireland?
3/18/98: Flat tire? Spare me
3/13/98: Latrell Sprewell's genius
3/10/98: On truth and reality
3/5/98: No, I'm not harrassing Hillary
3/3/98: The Unforgettable Henny Youngman
2/26/98: Grow up, boys!
2/24/98: Go get 'em, Bill!
2/19/98: My 15 minutes
2/17/98: The manic-depressive presidency
2/12/98: Drip, Drip, Drip
2/10/98: Clinton tunes out the networks
2/5/98: The flight of the Beast: America's love-hate relationship with scandal
2/3/98: Speaking Clintonese
1/29/98: What the president has going for him
1/27/98: Judgment call: how Americans view President Clinton
1/22/98: Bimbo eruptions past and present
1/20/98: Feeding the beast: Paula Jones gets the full O.J.
1/15/98: Let's get it over with: it's time to deal with Saddam, already
1/13/98: Sonny Bono is dead, let the good times roll
1/8/98: Carribbean Cheesecake: First couple has cake, eats cake
1/6/98: PO'ed: a suspected druggie jumps through the employment hoops
1/1/98: Cures for that holiday hangover
12/30/97: Buy stuff now
12/25/97: Peace to all squirrelkind
12/23/97: Home for the Holidays: Where John Hinckley, never convicted, will not be
12/18/97: Bill's B-list Bacchanalia: Press and politicos get cozy, to a point
12/16/97: All dressed up... (White House flack Mike McCurry speculates on his next career)

©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.