THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:35 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: It's a pleasure to welcome you to our White House today -- to your White House. I know, I failed miserably -- I'm late, I'm sorry. I want to start -- I had meant to do this earlier in the week, but I want to echo sentiments that my colleague, Nick Burns, expressed earlier in the week over at the State Department -- an expression of condolence and some measure of honor to the late Ambassador Robert McCloskey.
Bob McCloskey was probably one of the finest people who has ever briefed members of the press on behalf of the United States government. He served as a chief spokesman of the U.S. State Department for longer, I think, than any other individual through, on and off for -- during the time that President Johnson, President Nixon and President Ford served. A truly remarkable man. When I was tutoring to take that job myself I saw one of his very distinguished successors, Hodding Carter, and asked how best to prepare for the job, and he said, go back and find any transcript you can locate of Bob McCloskey briefing because it's a master of ambiguity and nuance, a practiced art.
Q And the country suffered because of it.
MR. MCCURRY: The country never suffered because of his very fine service. He once said that not many are afforded the privilege of serving the government and the press, the two greatest states, at the same time. "Recognizing the responsibility of the government to both perform and inform, and the right of the media to question and comment, he or she seeks to find a tolerable area of compatibility even though the two institutions are as separate as church and state." A very fine and true commentary on the status of the adversarial, though ought to be amicable relationship.
Anyhow, he is certainly a legend. He was paid tribute to by many of the reporters who served at the State Department on Monday. And our condolences go to his wife and his daughters.
Now, on to the present -- and back to the future. Professor Stephanopoulos. I will read you a statement from the President of the United States:
"From the snows of New Hampshire in 1991 until the present day, no one has rendered me better advice, nor given more loyal service to this nation than George Stephanopoulos. There's no one in Washington who has a better understanding of the intersection of politics, policy and the way those affect the American people. His work here at the White House is evidence of his deep respect for our country, its system of government and its people. He cannot be replaced.
George will undoubtedly be a great teacher at Columbia. His boundless intellectual curiosity will be put to good use, shaping the leadership of the future."
Q Who wrote that, Stephanopoulos? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: No, his agent did. (Laughter.) The President had assistance in that statement from my largely female press office staff, which also included some language about -- with the recent marriage of John F. Kennedy, Jr., George now becomes the most eligible stud muffin in New York. (Laughter.) The President struck that for something more appropriately Ivy League.
Q Does the President think he's not the most eligible -- (laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: I know of at least one person who would challenge that, the question of eligibility. We will all miss him very much here.
Q Besides writing odes to George, what has the President been doing today?
MR. MCCURRY: Not using his voice, which is my next item. I had told you that Dr. Mariano had said that if his voice was not getting any better she was going to take another look at it.
She asked today for the assistance of Dr. James Suen, who is the President's ENT doctor who participates in his annual physical exam. He is a professor and chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology, head and neck --
Q Could you spell his name?
MR. MCCURRY: Dr. James Suen, S-u-e-n. And you'll see him in the medical records we released. He made commentary on the annual physical exam. He was assisted in examination today by Captain David Thompson, Dr. Thompson, who is the chief ENT guy at Bethesda and Walter Reed Naval Medical Center.
They did a fiberoptic probe of the President's vocal cords, confirmed that they had been overused mightily, and their diagnosis is the same one that Dr. Mariano made, that it's a combination of his air travel, overuse of his vocal cords, his reflux condition, which we reported to you in the past, and perhaps also his allergies -- a multifactoral diagnosis of overuse of his vocal cords, leading them to prescribe complete vocal rest.
Q For how long?
MR. MCCURRY: They would think a period of three to four days would be sufficient, but there is at least some evidence that the patient is not following doctors' orders already.
Q Did they do a biopsy, Mike?
MR. MCCURRY: No. This is a fiberoptic probe that just examines the vocal cords.
Now, they've also made a slight adjustment in some of the medication the President takes. He takes and antiacid that we've reported to you in the past, omeprazole, which we've reported to you in the past under the brand name, Prilasec. They've also prescribed an additional drug, cisapride, which a motility agent that controls the acid reflux in the President's --
Q What is a motility agent?
MR. MCCURRY: It means that it controls the level of acid as it rises from the esophagus into the throat, I guess.
Q And what does omperazole do?
MR. MCCURRY: It's an antiacid. It's like big, strong Maalox.
Q So one of them controls the levels and the other one dilutes the acid?
MR. MCCURRY: Right. One's an antiacid and one controls where the acid is in the digestive system.
Q How many polyps does he have?
MR. MCCURRY: They believe -- they hope that that will control the condition, and they also prescribe rest to the President's vocal cords. One consequence of this is the President is under instructions not to talk to people, which, given his entertainment schedule over the next couple of days, is going to be interesting. All of the members of Congress who are here for the Congressional Ball tonight will get a handshake and a smile, but not the cheerful words of welcome that the President usually provides.
Q What's he going to do for the national tree-lighting?
MR. MCCURRY: The good news is, it makes the reception line go faster, probably.
Q What's he going to do for the national tree-lighting?
MR. MCCURRY: Unknown. We'll have to check on that tomorrow and we'll see how it is. He might elect to have someone -- he might do, as he did yesterday, speak briefly and then have someone else complete his remarks.
Q Mike, do you describe this condition that he now has -- is it fair to say it's laryngitis? How would you describe it?
MR. MCCURRY: I'd describe it as colloquially as the President has lost his voice; it is missing in action.
Q You said they are adjusting his medication -- does this mean he's not taking his medications at all, or is he taking less of them?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I think he's still taking the same antiacid. I think they just prescribed a somewhat different dosage for it. I didn't get the dosages.
Q How does that affect the rest of his work? I mean, Cabinet, the Inaugural, budget -- is he just completely --
MR. MCCURRY: He's still working on it. You have some interest in that subject, do you?
Q Well, I mean, it would seem to be hard for him to conduct normal business if he can't talk.
MR. MCCURRY: He's conducting normal business, which may be part of the problem. I mean, he is --
Q Is he writing things down and communicating that way?
MR. MCCURRY: He is being encouraged to.
Q Should we give him an Etch-A-Sketch for Christmas?
MR. MCCURRY: That's a great idea, do one of those little think-pad things that you can draw on.
Q He's being encouraged to, but is he doing it?
Q Any announcements to make?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, you know, he kind of wrote all over this statement, you know, doing stuff like that.
Q How long was the exam?
Q In meetings, is he --
MR. MCCURRY: He's been having -- I mean, he whispers some audible comments, or barely audible comments. But by and large he's --
Q "It's a hoax." (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: He has been -- he will scratch a note if he needs to. He's not completely laying off the voice.
Q Where did the exam take place and how long was it?
MR. MCCURRY: At the residence, in the medical unit's clinic. It's an out patient exam. It took -- I didn't get the exact time, but it was probably about 20, 25 minutes.
Q -- pass the fiber optic probe through the nose and down into the throat?
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't get those kinds of details.
Q They found nothing else, other than overuse?
MR. MCCURRY: No. No other evidence of any other complicating viral infections or anything of that nature.
Q Just for our own, as you say, intense interest, does this mean that we should not expect him to have any oral or written announcements, perhaps, of Cabinet choices for the next three to five days?
MR. MCCURRY: On the question of Cabinet selections, the President has made no final decisions. He is actively considering that question. He will be meeting this afternoon with the Vice President. He continues to be in the same advanced state of deliberation that he was when I reported to you earlier this week.
Q Well, what's the likelihood that you will have an announcement?
MR. MCCURRY: The likelihood is that there is a finish line that will be crossed at some point in the not too distant future. But I don't want to speculate how soon.
Q Has he gotten to the stage of actually interviewing candidates, sitting down and talking to them about a job?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q Well, he's not doing that this week, right, or is he?
MR. MCCURRY: He's done some of that this week.
Q Well, are there FBI checks going on now?
MR. MCCURRY: There's, as you would expect, a vetting process that has been underway for some time.
Q Has there been a scenario where Vice President Gore asked the question and the President whispered?
MR. MCCURRY: No, but he has been participating -- the Vice President has been participating in most of the discussions the President has had, along with Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and Chief of Staff designate Erskine Bowles.
Q If they're already in the administration do they have to be checked again?
MR. MCCURRY: They'd still be -- it's not exactly the same process, but there would still be an effort to anticipate issues that might arise during a confirmation hearing, and anyone who has served in a high level in the government would be subject to questions about his or her performance of duties and that is the type of question that you would normally look at.
Q But if they stay in the same job there's no additional confirmation --
MR. MCCURRY: Correct, if someone is retaining the current position there wouldn't be any change.
Q Is there anybody else he wants to meet with this week, Mike, to complete what he wants to do with the national security team?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sorry, say again.
Q Is there anyone else he wants to meet with or talk to this week in terms of a candidate to complete the national security positions?
MR. MCCURRY: I would not rule that out.
Q You said he had met with --
MR. MCCURRY: So he's not using his voice, he is going to use his back swing -- and he will golf in 10 minutes, so the travel pool needs to assemble here at the door shortly.
Q When is this meeting with Gore going to occur?
MR. MCCURRY: Probably when he gets back. He told me he was going to do it later today.
Q Wouldn't the cold air put some additional strain on his vocal cords?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, back to that, the President has reported in the past some aggravation of his allergies because of Christmas evergreen decorations, but apparently that's under control because of the shots that he's been taking. He has not reported any additional problem related to allergies, and I'm not aware that anything affecting the outside ambient temperature affects this condition.
Q We should not expect -- you would rule out any announcement today on the Cabinet?
MR. MCCURRY: I'd say given that, given this, given that, go home. Maybe we can put a lid on.
Q Who is he going golfing with?
Q Any candidates?
Q How about Erskine?
MR. MCCURRY: A likely suspect. Why don't you go find out who is in the foursome -- twosome?
Q You said he had met with candidates this week. This is multiple candidates -- he's met with several people?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm only aware of one, but there may have been others.
Q Well, just give us the initials, okay?
Q Mike, getting back to the voice, some ENT specialists have written about Clinton's voice in journals and so forth. They've talked about the possibility that if this keeps becoming such a chronic problem, he could actually have -- I hesitate to use the term, but they used something like "paralyzed" vocal cords. Is anything being applied locally to his vocal cords to loosen it up or --
MR. MCCURRY: Only hot tea and the throat lozenges that I've mentioned in the past. They've not prescribed any other type of local anesthetic or anything of that nature that I'm aware of.
Q How long do they think this might last, now that they've regulated the antacid?
MR. MCCURRY: The diagnosis was if the President did refrain from using his voice for four days, that they would expect it normally to start repairing after that length of time.
Q Is he taking anyone else along to yell "fore" for him?
MR. MCCURRY: That's what we're going to go find out.
Q No herbal medicine or acupuncture?
Q I wasn't clear what you said to Rita, though. If he does finish up this selection process, I mean, he's going to violate doctor's orders, right, to come out and tell us about it? You're not saying that there's going to be no announcement for four days.
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not ruling in, ruling out any announcements. And how he would make them, given his vocal cord condition, I just don't know. Maybe I'd stand up and make the announcement -- read it for him.
Q -- weekly radio address?
MR. MCCURRY: No --
Q You're going to pull out a sub?
MR. MCCURRY: We'll look ahead to that. There might be a way of adjusting to taking into account that situation.
Q You could use "the best of." (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Are they going to do that with Inside Politics Weekend on CNN during the holiday season, Wolf, kind of do the Best of Wolf? It's a good idea.
Q You have to have some good ones in order to do the best of.
MR. MCCURRY: Mr. Hume, what did you say, you have to have some good ones to get a best of? (Laughter.) There will be plenty of those.
Q Mike, is this the worst episode of throat that he's ever had?
MR. MCCURRY: Apparently not. I think the condition that he suffered in 1992 during the campaign was worse, by the memory of those who were present and available.
Q Well, it was more episodic. It came and went more often.
MR. MCCURRY: Kind of came and went.
Q This seems to be the longest sustained.
MR. MCCURRY: This has gone for a longer duration, and it seemed to have gotten better over Thanksgiving when he rested it a bit, but it seemed to have gotten worse when he started yakking this week. So the doctors say, no more yak.
Q Have all the Cabinet officers been informed now as to whether they're staying or going? Like, Janet Reno -- you people have been so ambiguous, or noncommittal.
MR. MCCURRY: The President has been focusing mostly on these national security posts. I don't believe that he's completed his meetings with individual Cabinet officers that he hadn't seen prior to Thanksgiving.
Q So they're still in limbo in the sense of knowing?
MR. MCCURRY: No, they're hard at work and doing good work for the President, just as they always have.
Q Mike, can we get some White House comment on the ruling yesterday in Hawaii on same-sex marriages?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't have anything on that. I'll see if we've got anything on that.
Q On the question of adjusting the CPI, Republicans on the Hill are saying they'd like to think about it, but they would like to see leadership from the White House on this issue. What's the White House view on what the White House is prepared to do?
MR. MCCURRY: The White House is prepared to do what Dr. Stiglitz said in his statement, to carefully review the Boskin report and other evidence regarding the most accurate cost of living measure. The Bureau of Labor Statistics already has an ongoing effort to improve the Consumer Price Index calculation. It's already made several improvements over the last four years. The process for improving this measure should not be politicized and our goal should be to reach agreement based on the best scientific and technical judgment possible.
Now, let me amend Dr. Stiglitz's statement with an admonishment I've had from Professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who tells me that statistical measurements cannot be a matter of science because statistics cannot be replicated by a scientific method. Therefore, this is a matter of estimation. And Senator Moynihan has written essays about the act of estimation as being a worthless exercise. So that should be the best statistical and technical judgments possible, in my opinion, and in the opinion of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And I agree.
Q Can you do your impersonation for us now? How would he actually say that?
MR. MCCURRY: "No, lad." (Laughter.)
Q Can I follow up just on that? Would the President be willing to see this issue discussed in the budget negotiations with the Hill?
MR. MCCURRY: The issue of how to calculate the CPI and the impact it has on federal spending has been an issue in bipartisan budget deliberations in the past. The White House expects it will be an issue in the future. Senator Moynihan pointed out to me actually a good point, that the issue of the CPI calculation is, itself, now in some ways, if you look at it the way he looks at it, the fourth largest federal program after Social Security, health and defense. And I forgot to ask the Senator whether that would include interest on the federal debt.
Q Therefore, the White House will view it how?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, therefore, the White House will view it very carefully, because it has enormous impact, otherwise, on the lives of millions of Americans, and has enormous consequences for spending.
Q Is there a large pole long enough in the world with which you would touch this issue? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: I rely on the help of strangers.
Q Well, is there an internal debate? I noticed in the paper this morning, Dr. Tyson was saying the administration is willing to look at this. Secretary Rubin was saying, well, there's not that much interest in this.
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, I think there is considerable interest in what the calculation of cost of living increases does in terms of budget policy, how it affects Americans. There has been considerable debate on this in both the academic community and certainly among those who are responsible for policy-making. So, of course, there is considerable interest.
Q Is President Clinton prepared to do what Senator Moynihan wants, which is to take the leadership on this issue?
MR. MCCURRY: The President will have to lead when it comes to budget and any bipartisan agreement that would balance the budget by a date certain. And certainly if this issue enters into that calculation, leadership will be necessary and will be provided.
Q Mike, in the past when the Breaux-Chafee alternative was raised you noted the administration's objections to the CPI provision. Are you now saying that if that budget alternative is brought forward down the line and there is bipartisan support for it, the White House would be willing not to oppose it?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm basically taking a what you would call a wait-and-see attitude on that one there. I did not pronounce myself on that.
Q Who goes first, Mike, in this process? I mean, everybody says it's enormously important --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President will start the budget deliberations going by presenting a budget proposal to the Congress, and then we will go from there.
Q But on the CPI, though, what's the first step.
MR. MCCURRY: Our position on the issue of CPI calculation is, it is in late in the budget process now for that to be a calculation in the FY '98 budget submission. But whether or not that becomes an issue as the budget is deliberated remains to be seen.
Wolf has lost interest. He's now doing a crossword puzzle.
Q What about the proposal by the retired general to get rid of all nuclear weapons?
MR. MCCURRY: I turn the podium over to Dr. David Johnson. Go.
MR. JOHNSON: Thank you. As of, I believe, when we started there, they had not finished their presentation, so I'm unable to comment on exactly what they've said. A number of the things that they suggested are ones that the administration supports, in particular, the step-by-step approach that they have recommended be taken to reduction of nuclear weapons.
The administration has made enormous strides in this respect during its term of office -- START I implementation, the negotiation and the Senate ratification of START II, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and several other steps, including the complete denuclearization of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. But we continue to believe that nuclear weapons will be part of the cornerstone of our deterrent strategy for some time into the future. And so that there's not, of course, complete agreement between us and the generals.
Q There are some people in the Pentagon who don't want to go on camera who think he's just completely lost it, to be proposing it.
MR. JOHNSON: Well, the generals I think, given the time that you've been here and the time that they've made their presentation, whoever made that comment to you hadn't had the benefit of the general making his statement. So I don't think anybody has lost it, but I think that's a little unfair to go about making those sorts of comments before the generals have made their presentation at the National Press Club.
These ideas that they've put forward have merit and the notion that we would have a step-by-step approach to this as one that the administration has used and one that's been profitable in improving the security of the American people. But, as I said, we continue to believe that nuclear deterrence will remain a cornerstone of our strategy in protecting America's vital national interests.
Q The guy's good. Positively McCloskeyan. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Thank you, David. How are you on Riady? (Laughter.)
Q A related question, Dave. The strike wave now in Russia in the Kuzbass district is now taking on more of a political character. They're calling now for the resignation of Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and spreading also to St. Petersburg. Is there concern in the White House about this, and have you any recommendations to President Yeltsin as to how to deal with this -- for instance, maybe paying some of the back wages?
MR. MCCURRY: To my knowledge, we have not rendered any advice to President Yeltsin on a matter that is largely within his own province to deal with as a domestic issue. Obviously, the impact of that debate is one that we have followed closely, and it does have enormous impact on the lives of many of the Russian people.
Q How about Stephanopoulous? Is somebody going to fill an equivalent role, or is George's role so specialized to him personally in his experience --
MR. MCCURRY: He's irreplacable.
Q No, I'm serious, though. Does the President envision putting somebody in a spot similar to that as a senior advisor, doing sort of functions that George is now doing?
MR. MCCURRY: I would not be surprised if the President attempts to replicate with another individual the role of someone who really does have a broad portfolio on a wide range, looking at both the political impact of policy-making and how the President can best use his own resources to address the most significant policy issues that are in the "in-box."
And George, I like to say, is the guy who makes sure the right order exists in the Oval Office "in-box" and that everything that comes out in the "out-box" is perfect. And he's been unsurpassed in his ability to kind of manage that type flow of issues and dialogue and he's been, quite literally, indispensible to the President.
So it's conceivable to me the President will want, somehow or other, to fill that role, and given his capabilities, it might take more than one person to do so. But I think the function itself, the marriage of politics and policy and how that affects what we do here at the White House, is one that requires someone with George's kind of talent.
That was a long way of saying "maybe yes." Okay, back to sleep. See you all.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:00 P.M. EST