PROFILE - Joe Lockhart: Honest Joe, the White House’s straight spinner - It’s been called the second hardest job in the White House Press secretary Joe Lockhart talks to Adam Leyland about the pressure of politics, the subtleties of spin a

Joe Lockhart is a simple guy. And not just in his love of simple pleasures like the New York Mets and Bruce Springsteen. The White House press secretary is a refreshing antidote to those who say that political PR is just a game of spin. He plays it deadpan straight. Simple.

Joe Lockhart is a simple guy. And not just in his love of simple pleasures like the New York Mets and Bruce Springsteen. The White House press secretary is a refreshing antidote to those who say that political PR is just a game of spin. He plays it deadpan straight. Simple.

Joe Lockhart is a simple guy. And not just in his love of simple

pleasures like the New York Mets and Bruce Springsteen. The White House

press secretary is a refreshing antidote to those who say that political

PR is just a game of spin. He plays it deadpan straight. Simple.



Of course the simplicity of his position is an illusion that Lockhart

works tirelessly to master. ’It’s the second hardest job in the White

House,’ says Helen Thomas, the UPI veteran who has covered the White

House beat since the Kennedy days. ABC’s Sam Donaldson says, ’When you

first meet him, his eyes flare out, and some wondered if he was ready

for the prime time. But he’s done a good job. He plays it straight. He’s

loyal but he wants to be honest. He’s a good guy, you don’t feel you’ve

got to fight to do your job.’



’Joe succeeded an enormously popular press secretary in Mike McCurry,’

adds Susan Page at USA Today, ’and he has earned the respect of the

press by doing it his own way. Mike was smooth and funny but also sly.

Joe is more direct, sometimes confrontational, but well-informed and

trusted.’



’Joe is one of the best it’s been my honor to work with,’ adds Thomas,

who resigned last month. ’He’s a straight shooter. He has access to the

Oval Office. He understands the presidential program and all the

nuances.



And he’s performed very well on the podium. He really got the hang of

it.’



Now that he’s got the hang of it, rumors are starting to emerge that

Lockhart will leave the job early. Lockhart addresses the rumors with

that self-same candor. ’I would not dispute those reports,’ he says.

’I’ve been at this four and a half years. The time is nearly right.’ He

hints unambiguously at an autumn departure. ’The focus shifts after the

conventions.



While we’ll have a very important appropriations fight in September, the

pressures will be less significant.’



Naturally, rumors of his early exit from the political stage have

started a clamor for his services, with public affairs firms among the

most active pursuers, including Burson-Marsteller, Edelman, BSMG and the

MWW Group.



Rumors of a ’secret’ meeting at a New York law firm on May 19 are again

met without complication - ’yeah, a lawyer’s handling it for me’- but at

the same time he insists that it’s only ’a possibility’ that he will

join a PR firm. A former SVP at Robinson Lerer Sawyer Miller (client

details remain sketchy, but he worked on Microsoft and mostly

Washington-based trade associations), he says.



’When you’re talking to agencies, it’s mostly talking to my

friends.’



But Lockhart is by no means ready to slack off just yet. As he admits,

President Clinton has set a ’very aggressive agenda (for his final year

in office). The president is constantly reminding us how little time

there is, and how much to do.’ On the agenda for this year has been a

big push for the WTO China deal; Medicare reform; a Patient’s Bill of

Rights; a new education bill; changes to the minimum wage; and the

long-term reform of Social Security. Some of these are doing better than

others, but President Clinton is not going to stop from trying. ’Joe has

been set a unique task in keeping the president at the top of the agenda

in an election year,’ says Page. ’Clinton is indefatigable, and he needs

an indefatigable press secretary.’



Keeping the president in the spotlight has taken some maneuvering. For

two months, in the heat of the primary season, the communications team

decided to keep a low profile, although Clinton still attended events

for photo opportunities. ’The big difference is that we’ve made sure the

president was more available for one-to-one interviews,’ says

Lockhart.



Availability even extended to a one-hour appearance on Good Morning

America, talking to mothers about gun control. ’You have to be more

creative to keep him center stage, and to make sure he’s there for the

hot button issues,’ Lockhart adds.





The working day



It’s a challenge that Lockhart relishes. A self-confessed ’advocate,’

his day begins at 7 am. By the time he meets the press for the first

time at 9:30 am, Lockhart has already attended five 15-minute meetings,

with the chief of staff, top aides, at a communications planning

meeting, a budget and policy meeting, and with his 30-strong press

office staff.



The 9:30 press briefing is shared with 25 journalists shoehorned into

his room. It’s his favorite part of the day. ’It’s informal, off camera,

and it’s on my turf. It’s a substantive session (on the record), but

it’s more fun.’ The least-favorite aspect of the job, for Lockhart, are

the endless meetings: ’A lot of the time, we don’t deliberate on policy,

but we have to listen to the process.’



The president is briefed at least once a day, and he then has a one-hour

window to prepare for the televised press meeting at 1 pm. This can be a

harrowing ordeal, with a pack of journalists asking tricky questions on

anything from 25 to 50 issues of domestic and foreign policy. ’The

trick,’ explains Lockhart with a smile, ’is to list the issues

alphabetically and not to look up. The questions are generally

long-winded, which gives me plenty of time to look them up.’ Lockhart

credits the 79-year-old Thomas as the most formidable. ’When you see her

walk in, you wouldn’t know how sharp she is, but she asks these

questions that get right to the point, and she won’t let go.’



Lockhart, a former journalist who worked at CNN, ABC and Sky Television

News in Europe, sees his media roots as vital to the job. He views

himself as ’being a reporter, not a repeater.’ Commenting on the speed

at which information travels in the Internet age, he notes a new

breathlessness in the style of reporting (’like the old wire

reporters’), and wishes that the White House press office could be

equipped with new computers ’for the needs of the 21st century.’ But

Lockhart prides himself on the accuracy of the information he provides.

’Much of my job is classic crisis management. The trick is to get

accurate information fast, to get it right the first time,’ he says.

’We’re not always first, but we’re always solid.’



Lockhart works with the chief of staff to frame messages, which he must

then ’amplify.’ He says he ’makes sure facts are not left to speak for

themselves,’ but are put in context. ’Some might call this spin, but I

call it getting out the White House take on the facts before the media

and others spin them in different directions. ’Of course Joe spins,’

ABC’s Donaldson replies, ’but on balance, he comes close to playing it

straight on the big issues.’ And Lockhart believes that the days of the

prolific ’spinmeister’ are on the decline: ’The information is so easy

to come by.’





To tell the truth



Lockhart believes that access and information has been an essential

ingredient of his job. But he does admit it sometimes presents a problem

because he knows the answers to sensitive questions that he’d rather not

answer.



There have been times when he has walked out of a room rather than hear

something he would have to lie to the press about later, he says. For

some, including Donaldson, that’s a problem. ’He’s the press secretary

to the president. It’s his job to know. McCurry skirted round the Monica

issue that way, but I’m not sure it’s right.’



McCurry has been one of many influential figures in the career of Joe

Lockhart. And when he looks to his future, he admits that working with

McCurry is one of those ’possibilities.’ McCurry has made a successful

transition into public affairs at Public Strategies and is on the board

of advisors at Grassroots.com. But having lost out on a reported dollars

10 million in AOL shares after he turned down a job there, Lockhart is

also looking closely at the dot-com space, where he notes that there is

’ample capital for new ideas.’



’I’m educating myself,’ he says. ’There’s a lot of great companies out

there. The ideal would pull together politics and public affairs in the

information arena.’ But Lockhart, again candid, admits to confusion: ’I

know a lot more now, but I’m further away from knowing than I was three

months ago.’



On one final matter, however, Lockhart is clear. There will be no book,

no tell-all autobiography. And as usual, he tells this without a hint of

piety. ’It’s a common sense standpoint. Nobody in their right mind wants

to read another book about the Clinton administration. By the time I

leave, there will be a definitive autobiography by President

Clinton.



I know which one I would rather read. And anyway, I’m not sure I could

relive it all.’



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in