Politically aware Americans might be familiar with the names Mike
McCurry and Joe Lockhart, but most would be hard-pressed to remember the
final press secretary in President Clinton's administration.
While Jake Siewert, a 37-year-old Long Islander, had worked in the White
House for years, he served at the podium for only a few months. And that
is a shame, according to The Washington Post's John Harris, who covered
the White House from 1995-2001. "He was one of the hidden workforce, but
was critical in managing press and strategy," he says. "It's unfortunate
that he was not in the job longer. I think he would have been a
Harris describes Siewert's style as informal. "It was sometimes to his
detriment. He once made a comment about Sandy Berger, and then had to
write an apology letter. He was very tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes
crossed the line."
In January, Siewert prepared to leave the White House. He said his
good-byes, and prepared for a snowboarding trip out West. But it wasn't
long before he was back in Washington, working to get in front of a
story that seemed to grow new legs at every turn.
Clinton's departure from office was a huge story: At its center were
Presidential pardons, and questions about who was able to wield
influence over the choices. That alone was difficult enough for Siewert
But there were also accusations of vandalism within the White House
(later proven false), and questions over whether the furniture being
removed from the Presidential home actually belonged to the Clintons.
Siewert became one of the most sought-after contacts for the media.
Siewert explains the cause of the problems: "The list of pardons simply
went out at the last second. It's what happens when there's a breakdown
between decision-makers and the people who explain the decisions."
Siewert says this did not happen often at the White House, but he admits
that on this occasion, "there was no time left to manage the ebb and
flow of the press. Everyone was out of office."
Surprisingly, Siewert has faced even bigger challenges as a
communications expert. "The most interesting and difficult period was
while I was with the National Economic Council. The whole Russian Ruble
devaluation had the world economy teetering for several months."
Siewert's job was to craft a measure that was strong enough to make
people realize there was a serious problem, but to keep it low-key, so
as not to cause alarm.
Among his other tricky tasks was dealing with the Middle East peace
"Your instinct is to talk to the people in the room," he says, "but you
are talking to several audiences around the world, and everyone's
watching you. A friend of mine said America is the room of today;
everyone's watching it, and that's difficult to keep in mind."
Having spent almost the majority of his career at the White House,
Siewert says he watches President Bush's press team with interest. "(The
administration) has been deftly crafting the message. They have a good
mix of people that they alternate: Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, Donald
Rumsfeld, the President. They have blended the diplomatic and military
news, and given Powell a role."
Siewert, who was invited to lunch last month by current Bush press
secretary Ari Fleischer, observes the difference between the Bush and
the Clinton administrations' media response strategies: "We were very
readily available, and I'm not sure it always served our purpose. The
Bush team keeps the press at arm's length, and that has been very
instructive. They have not suffered much because of the distance. Being
a bit more distant and aloof doesn't have any real downside."
The current White House press team has not been without criticism,
When asked what advice he would pass on to future press secretaries,
Siewert says that it's important not to let yourself get ahead of the
facts, or let your feelings about a story dominate the strategy. "When
the first plane struck the World Trade Center, someone at the White
House said how it might well be terrorism. That's very risky."
He points out that press representatives were careful not to speculate
on whether terrorists had caused the crash of American Airlines flight
587 to the Dominican Republic, weeks later.
Siewert says it's important for any press secretary to step back from
events. "You need to be able to see where you're going. It's like being
a sailor: You need to know where you are in the ocean, but you've got to
know what lies ahead."
After the pardon outrage died down, and all the White House furniture
had been accounted for, Siewert decided to set his own boat on course
for a major corporation, rather than discuss working at a New York
crisis firm. He docked at aluminum company Alcoa, which was previously
run by Bush treasury secretary Paul O'Neill. A strange choice, some
might say, but Siewert insists that Alcoa has a solid vision of its
future, and is a place that will give him a high degree of freedom in
terms of formulating a communications strategy.
Siewert joined in October, and has been getting to know the business and
its issues. As well as traveling to Europe to gain familiarity with
public affairs issues, he helped deal with the news that Alcoa will lay
off 6,500 workers. He describes his new job as an adventure, and it
doesn't sound like he's hankering for a return to politics just yet.
"With Alcoa, the spotlight comes and goes," he says. "With the White
House, it's always on you."
1991: Policy director at the Democratic Governor's Association
1992-1996: Worked on Clinton election campaigns
1997-1999: Special assistant to the President for Economic Affairs at
the National Economic Council, White House
1999-2000: White House deputy press secretary
2000-2001: White House press secretary
2001-present: VP of global communications and public strategy, Alcoa