Currie, Betty 1939(?)–
Betty Currie 1939(?)–
Betty Currie rose through the ranks of the federal government to become secretary to President Bill Clinton and a key figure in his impeachment trial. Described by many friends and associates as gentle and honest, yet, at the same time, politically savvy, she inspired speculation as to whether her loyalty to her boss would color her testimony regarding his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. While the reputations of the other scandal participants sagged as the 1998 investigation progressed, Currie’s remained steadfast in spite of her involvement in the affair.
Betty Currie grew up in Waukegan, IL, a town on the shores of Lake Michigan north of Chicago. She attended Waukegan Township High School and took a job as a secretary after she graduated in 1957. Two years later she moved to Washington D.C. and worked for the Navy as a secretary before moving on to the Postal Service. In 1969 Joseph Blatchford, who headed the newly-formed Peace Corps, was looking for a new secretary. Blatchford told Time’s Nancy Gibbs that he needed someone who was extremely competent: “The job was a crucial one. I had 10,000 people spread out over 68 countries, and I needed a reliable, efficient person. I didn’t ask if she was a Republican or Democrat. I wasn’t interested because she was so good.” When Blatchford moved on to ACTION, the federal agency that ran the Peace Corps, Currie moved with him. She stayed with the organization throughout the 1970s and served as the top administrative assistant to three of the agency’s bosses. In that time Currie, who had been married, divorced, and had a daughter, met and began dating an ACTION executive named Robert Currie. Though he went on to the Environmental Protection Agency, the two married in 1988. In those years Currie built her reputation as an unfailingly polite and religious woman with an extensive political network. Sam Brown, another of Currie’s bosses at ACTION, told Time’s Gibbs about Currie’s contacts: “Betty is not just an exceptional assistant who is smart and nice; she is well connected in that network of savvy career senior secretaries across Washington. She knows exactly who to call to get something done, or is at most two calls away from knowing.” It was this insider knowledge that would bring her into conflict with her last boss at ACTION.
When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 he appointed
At a Glance…
Born c. 1939; married Robert Currie. Politics: Dem ocrat. Religion: Methodist.
Career: Presidential secretary. Worked as a secretary in the Navy, in the Postal Service, and then at ACTION, 1959-1984; worked on Geraldine Ferraro’s vice presidential campaign, 1984; worked on Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign, 1988; worked on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, 1992; secretary to the president of the United States, 1993—.
Addresses: Office— The Office of the President of the United States, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C, 20500.
a conservative Dallas lawyer named Thomas Pauken to head ACTION. Reagan wanted Pauken to clean house because he thought the government agency was too liberal. One of the first things Pauken did was to demote Currie. He told Gibbs that “as long as she (Currie) was sitting outside my office, I wasn’t running the agency.” The conservative felt that Currie and other long-time members of the federal agency needed to be removed from positions of influence in order to bring about the changes he wanted.
The Transition to Politics
Currie retired from the federal government in 1984, but she did not retire from politics. In 1984 she took a position as the office manager in Geraldine Ferraro’s campaign for vice president. Four years later she worked on Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign. In 1992 she moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, to work for Clinton’s campaign advisor, James Carville. She stayed on in Little Rock after Clinton was elected to the presidency to serve as secretary to Warren Christopher, who would be named Secretary of State and headed up Clinton’s transition team. When Clinton’s secretary decided to stay in Arkansas and not move to Washington, Currie landed the job in January of 1993. The first five years of her tenure as Clinton’s gatekeeper passed quietly. In a 1996 interview, President Clinton told Jodie Jacobs of the Chicago Tribune: “As you might imagine, the office can get hectic on certain days, and Betty is always a calm, reassuring voice during those times. She has a kind spirit and is a constant example of efficiency and professionalism. But what I especially admire is her commitment and love to her family. She is a family person in the truest sense and a role model for many of us in the White House.” Currie, who worked from 7:45 a.m. to 7:45 p.m., sorted through the president’s mail, took people into the Oval Office, gave tours to dignitaries, and managed the president’s calls coming in and going out of the office. In short she had intimate knowledge of the daily business of the White House. And it was this knowledge that would make her a central figure in the impeachment of the president of the United States.
Currie Under Fire
When word leaked out about President Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Independent Prosecutor Kenneth Starr made Currie a key witness in the case. If anyone would know about the details of Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky, it would be Currie, who was a friend and co-worker to both. In all Currie made nine appearances before the grand jury in the ongoing investigations of the president. The central question in the media concerned her dual loyalties to her principles and to her boss. The Starr report painted Currie as facilitating the affair between Clinton and Lewinsky, but Currie’s testimony did not paint her as an accomplice. She knew that the relationship between the two was different from the typical working relationship, but when Lewinsky wanted to take Currie into her confidence, the secretary stopped her, telling the young intern whom she had befriended that she did not want to know any more. Currie admitted to arranging many of the meetings between Clinton and Lewinsky sometimes even on Saturdays when she could admit Lewinsky without logging her in on the official guest list. Currie also admitted to not logging in some of their phone conversations. She delivered gifts to Lewinsky from the president and then, after news of the affair leaked out, Currie went to Lewinsky’s apartment and took the gifts back. All of this testimony clearly came down against Clinton, but in the key obstruction of justice charges, Currie was less helpful to Starr’s case. On many points her memory was fuzzy, and on others she clearly supported her boss. For example, Starr maintained that Clinton was behind Lewinsky’s acquisition of a prestigious job at Revlon in exchange for her cooperation in keeping the affair quiet. Currie refuted this claim. She said it was her idea to call presidential friend Vernon Jordan to ask him to look for a job for the former intern. Currie also said that it was Lewinsky rather than Clinton who told her to pick up the president’s gifts from Lewinsky’s apartment.
Support for the President
Currie’s most important testimony was also balanced. After the president testified in the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit, he called Currie to the White House on a Sunday at 5:00 p.m., the same day her mother had come home from the hospital. Currie testified that he asked her a series of leading questions in regard to his relationship with Lewinsky such as, “You were always there when she was there, right?” When word of the story leaked, Clinton maintained that he was just going over the events trying to get his memory straight, rather than tampering with a witness. Currie supported him in his claim and said she did not feel he was trying to influence her. Her husband told Kevin Merida of the Washington Post, “Betty is very loyal to her boss. I don’t think she perceived it as covering anything up. Monica and Betty were friends. Anybody who walked into her office was her friend’I mean, it’s the president of the United States. If he says, ‘Can you do this?’What are you going to do?” On top of her problems at the White House, Currie faced three family tragedies in succession. In the time between May of 1997 to May of 1998 Currie’s sister died of a heart attack, her brother was killed in a car accident, and her mother died after a long illness.
Though Currie was put through a period of almost unimaginable stress, she continued on at the White House. After the spotlight faded somewhat she resumed attending her United Methodist church and going out to eat. But both the Curries just wished to see an end to this disturbing period in their lives and in American presidential history. Avis LaVelle, who met Currie in Little Rock when he was Clinton’s campaign press secretary in 1992, told Merida of the Washington Post that Currie has been shaken by the events: “She’s under a lot of stress. She’s very concerned how this will spill out for her. I don’t know exactly what happened there, but however that situation ends, Betty Currie’s reputation should remain intact. Betty Currie was not the president’s boss.”
Chicago Tribune, June 16, 1996.
Los Angeles Times, January 24, 1998; October 3, 1998.
New York Times, September 18, 1998.
Time Magazine, February 16, 1998; April 27, 1998.
Washington Post, October 4, 1998.
—Michael J. Watkins
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