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Democratic Convention: Joe Lockhart

Joe Lockhart
Former White House Press Secretary
Tuesday, July 27, 2004; 11:00 AM

The 2004 Democratic National Convention kicked off in Boston Monday with the party's presidential candidate John Kerry tied in latest polls with President Bush.

Former White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart disucssed the convention and the 2004 election.


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The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Joe Lockhart: Glad to be here. It was a great night at the convention last night and I am looking forward to the rest of the week.

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Washington, D.C.: How much money is really spent at these conventions with all the folks being wined and dined? Is it special political favors that this is done?

Joe Lockhart: It obviously cost a lot of money to put on the convention and I think that is a mix of both money and privately raised fund. IU think a lot of companies and private groups feel this is a great time to show their hospitality to customers and friends but I don't think it is any different than the normal course of politics. There is no secret that money is involved, money is important. Without radical change in the way money is used in campaigns that will remain the case.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: It is the conventional wisdom that the candidate from each political convention gets a temporary boost in the polls after each convention. Do you have any predictions on how much of an immediate post-convention boost we should expect Kerry and Bush to each receive, and what might it mean if the numbers are different this year than in past years?

Joe Lockhart: think the bounce numbers will be smaller for both candidates this year because the public has taken an earlier interest in this race than in previous years and a very large percentage of Americans have made up their mind as to who to vote for. The bounce is generally a reflection of the undecideds going back and forth and with the pool so small this year the so-called bounce will also be smaller, but I think that will be the case for both candidates.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Joe, seen you speak several times now and always love to hear what you have to say.

President Clinton mentioned the Assault Weapons Ban last night, drawing a contrast between Democrats who want to see it renewed and Republicans who want it to die when it expires in September. Do you think there's a way for Democrats to talk about the ban as separate from the standard "gun control" stance that gets them into trouble?

I also heard they've given pro-ban Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy a speaking role Wednesday night. Are Democrats starting to see this as an issue Bush is vulnerable on?

Joe Lockhart: I do think the GOP is vulnerable on this issue particularly when you link this to other positions they have taken on fighting crime. I think most Americans believe there is wisdom in keeping assault weapons off the streets and more police on the streets. It is hard to fathom but the presidents program right now does just the opposite - more cop killing weapons on the street and less cops. I think common sense often trumps everything in politics and this is a common sense position.

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Thousand Oaks, Calif.: I was curious what you think Al Gore's legacy in the Democratic Party will be? I think if he showed half as much passion giving his speeches as a presidential candidate that he does as a private citizen, he would have been elected.

Joe Lockhart: I don't know. I think Al Gore's legacy is still to be written. Clearly he has been a leader in our party on national security and environmental issues. He was the victim of the biggest miscarriage of justice in our political history but I don't think he has written the final chapter yet. I think we will be hearing more from Al Gore and only then will we know what his legacy will be.

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Yonkers, N.Y.: Hi Joe

Kevin Phillips wrote in The Nation that Kerry can win by being more forceful, more candid, even more Howard Dean-like.

He says that only this will get those non-strong Bush supporters.

Any thoughts?

Joe Lockhart: I think that Sen. Kerry will demonstrate strength and forcefulness. We have to remember that his convention speech is really the first time he will be speaking to the convention as a whole and the public wants to know who John Kerry is and they want to know that he will be strong and keep the country safe. So I agree that he must demonstrate that strength and starting Thursday night you will see this. Some of this comes from how you define strength. Al Gore, Carter and President Clinton got it right -- strength without wisdom does not make us safer, in fact it probably makes us less safe.

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Washington, D.C.: Joe, thanks for taking our questions. I understand you're helping Sandy Berger get through his National Archives muddle. Any insight on what really happened there?

Joe Lockhart: I think the story is less complicated and more political than has been reported. It was clear that someone who did not have the Democratic Party's best interests at heart decided to use Mr. Berger in a way to get at Democrats as a whole, which unfortunately has become standard practice in Washington. The facts of this case are simple: Sandy made and honest mistake and he has acknowledged and deeply regrets. Those who like spin up fanciful stories for their own political gain at the expense of a great public servants' reputation demean the entire political system.

I think there is a striking contrast between Sandy Berger publicly acknowledging an honest mistake and an administration that can't acknowledge dishonest mistakes.

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Decatur, AL: Scott McClennan seams to get increasingly agitated by media enquiries regarding everything from Bushs' gaurd duty to WMD. In some cases he just yields the questions to a different department, or simply states "end of subject" which sometimes suggests to the media, hence the public that frankly it's none of our business.

Your tenure as Press Secretary under Clinton must have been a daunting challeng with so much focus on Whitewater, Lewinsky, etc. Is it difficult as press secretary for any administration to field questions about issues, and do you agree with Mr. McClellans style?

Joe Lockhart: I think everyone has their own style but as someone who has held the job it is literally impossible to criticize someone else and how they do the job. It is a very difficult and demanding task. If the public believes they are not getting the information they need we have a system of making changes in out government called elections.

I know McClellan and Ari Fleisher's job was made more difficult than it needs to be because of this administrations' penchant for secrecy and I believe contempt for the publics right to know.

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Hill, Washington, D.C.: Joe, I'm a big fan of your Correspondents Dinner spoof with the cast of West Wing. Still cracks me up after all these years. Any entertainment projects on your radar?

Thanks.

Joe Lockhart: I think the good news for the American entertainment audience is that I will not be partaking in any more comedy. There is enough bad television already.

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Wheaton, Md.: What a snoozefest! Even with all those celebrities and big-name political figures, I couldn't stay interested. Do you think they'll liven in up today?

Joe Lockhart: The convention is not about entertainment even though I think there were some stirring speeches last night. We live in a very serious time where the decisions we make this fall will impact everyone's lives. So if we err on the side of being serious and not lively enough I think that is a mistake we can live with.

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Washington, D.C.: Joe,

I thought President Clinton was great last night. How did you all get him to keep to only 20 minutes, though?

Joe Lockhart: That is probably the biggest story of this convention. I think President Clinton understood that there was limited time that the broadcast networks were going to devote to the coverage last night and he certainly wanted Sen. Clinton to have some time and John Kerry's crewmate to have some time so he set about this time to make the case in 20 minutes or so. I think it worked out beautifully but it was hard for him. He has a lot to say and he likes to speak.

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Washington, D.C.: Were you surprised by anything at the convention yesterday? Carter was a lot feistier than I expected. I was also pleasantly surprised at Clinton's reference to folks who avoided going to Vietnam -- himself included.

Joe Lockhart: I think President Carter gave a very tough but effective speech. It has been a long time since he came to a convention so it was great to see him again. I think all of the party faithful felt that. I think the public very much wants to see a positive vision but there is something about winning the a Nobel Peace Prize that allows you to make a tougher case against the president and I think he did that.

I think the most effective thing Clinton did was when he talked about the real tragedy of President Bush squandering the national unity in the aftermath of 9/11 by trying to win political victories.

I have heard Clinton say this before, but even after hearing it it was jarring to hear him make that point. The Republicans spent a lot of time and money trying to run down Kerry's military record and his commitment to securing this country and I think president Clinton very effectively delivered a simple message that John Kerry has proven his commitment and shame on anyone who questions it.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: As to the Sandy Berger issue, how can one call a former Security official taking documents from the National Archives an honest mistake?

Joe Lockhart: Sandy's explanation has been upfront and candid -- that he inadvertently took these documents and when asked about it he returned them immediately. If politics were not involved here than every republican who cried foul would be standing up criticizing one of their own - Sen. Shelby from Alabama who is also a subject of criminal information about leaking classified information. I can call it an honest mistake because I know Sandy Berger and when he says something it is the truth. I also know that after a few hours this had very little to do with Sandy Berger and more to do with the partisan battles that dominate Washington political life.

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Oakville, Ontario, Canada: The Republican flip-flop charge seems to have hit home with some potential voters. How can Kerry best refute this characterization?

Joe Lockhart: I think John Kerry has to stand up on Thursday night and tell all Americans what he wants to do as President. I think once he does that the republicans flopping around on flip-flops will be forgotten.

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Fairfax, Va.: The Dems shouldn't have put President Carter up there to scold Bush over Foreign Policy since Carter had his own failings in that area.

Anyway, my question is about the Electoral College. Why not award these on a percentage basis; for instance, if Bush wins 40 percent of California votes, he gets 40 percent of the delegates. What do you think?

Joe Lockhart: I think 2000 was an object lesson for the need for electoral reform in America. Unfortunately there are too many powerful interests that will resist change and it probably won't change.

Obviously the Iranian hostage crisis was a terrible time for all Americans, but I think president carter overall has a good record on foreign policy and he has a Nobel Peace Prize for all the work he has done through the Carter Center and all the work he has done around the world. I think he is one of the best people for Democrats to put up and talk about foreign policy.

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Miami, Fla.: Is Florida the tipping point of the election this year? Does the whole race boil down to who wins Florida?

Joe Lockhart: No, I think Florida is an important state but I think most eyes will be on Ohio. If Democrats can manage to win Ohio they will win the election.

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San Antonio, Tex.: Knowing Robert G. Kaiser's book, "The News about the News: American Journalism in Peril," reading Washington Post's columnist Howard Kurtz's reporting from the convention over the course of the last two days seems hugely depressing. According to Kurtz, the circus at the Democratic National Convention is as much about the performance of the media, as it is about all the other behind-the-scenes goings-on.

When at the conventions -- either Republican or Democratic -- will the American public begin to see discussion of serious topics such as: Are bin Laden-related dangers downplayed to nurse the on-again, off-again economic recovery and the presidential prospects of both U.S. political parties? Is there a national security strategy vis-a-vis bin Laden, or are our leaders just winging it? In short, should we reach for the champagne or the rosary?

When will the convention -- and reporting thereof -- start to get serious and address the nation's most pressing issues? Or will seriousness only briefly creep into the upcoming debates?

Joe Lockhart: I think if you have access to C-SAPN or CNN or MSNBC or any of the cable stations that are covering this gavel to gavel you will see there is a very serious discussion going on. Unfortunately the major networks have decided that fake reality television is more important than the real reality that this nation faces. There is nothing you can do about that -- it is a business decision. I think most Americans who want to watch this have access to it and will see a serious discussion and understand that the democrats have a serious plan to change the direction of this country.

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Ohio factor: Does Kucinich's endorsement of Kerry do much for the state of Ohio? I know Kucinich was barely a blip on the radar in the primaries, but as a non-Ohioan I understand he's fairly well-respected.

Of course I also hear he was once referred to as "Dennis the Menace"... does his approval carry any signficant weight?

Joe Lockhart: I think that his endorsement and the positive campaign he ran only helps Kerry in Ohio. I think what will really impact Ohio even more is the reality of the economic situation on the ground. The president likes to talk about what a great economic steward he is - all he has to do is go to Ohio and talk to people there to find out that that is not going to fly.

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Kailua-Kona, Hawaii: Joe,

Al Gore last night mentioned the upcoming vacancies on the Supreme Court... why aren't Dem's making this more of a rallying cry?

Joe Lockhart: I think you will hear about the future of the Supreme Court and how important it is in deciding whom our president should be a lot this week. There has been a high jacking of the lower courts over the past three and half years by conservative ideologues and the prospect of the supreme Court moving farther to the right should be troubling to most Americans and I think democrats will discuss this early and often.

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Bowie, Md.: G'morning. How will we stay away from the negative mud slinging which is sure to increase as we get closer to November 2?

Joe Lockhart: I suggest that all Americans listen closely to the tone of the democratic convention and compare it to what we are going to hear from New York. It is unprecedented that a sitting president would spend 80 -90 percent of his advertising dollars running negative commercials about his opponent. An administration so short of accomplishments probably has no other choice.

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Joe Lockhart: It has been a pleasure to talk to everyone.

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