Joe Lockhart's Insider Job
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 1998; Page D01
On the sixth night of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Joe Lockhart hit the phones.
The Dallas Morning News had just touted a possible White House witness to an encounter between the president and the intern, and Lockhart was harassing the networks that picked it up. He called "Nightline," which reported the administration's denial before signing off. He called CNN reporter John King after the report was mentioned on "Larry King Live."
"The story is a piece of [excrement]," Lockhart declared. "Your network is putting it on the air. You can't just pin it on the Dallas Morning News. Your credibility is at stake."
During eight months of Lewinsky coverage, King says, "I've probably had more conversations with Joe Lockhart between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. than with my wife." And Lockhart's instincts were right that night: The Morning News retracted the story hours later.
Lockhart's style -- a mixture of hard-driving defense, provocative analysis and barbed humor -- is becoming familiar to Washington reporters. Many have tangled with him as the sharp-tongued deputy to outgoing press secretary Mike McCurry. Others remember him as the pit-bull spokesman for President Clinton's 1996 campaign. Still others recall his work as an editor and producer for three networks.
That media experience may come in handy when Lockhart, 39, succeeds his pal McCurry in the $125,000 post next month. He will be the first White House press secretary since Ron Nessen in the Ford administration to have had a recent career as a newsman. The son of journalists and the husband of a longtime ABC producer, Lockhart was spinning through the revolving door between media and politics long before that phrase became fashionable.
But he abandoned the news business a half-dozen years ago after concluding it was shallow. "I just think I'm better at being inside than outside," Lockhart says. "I'm someone who joins a team, loves a cause, more than someone who is a trained observer. I like to be on the right side, rather than just doing 'he-said/she-said.' "
A stocky man whose thick brown hair has a prominent gray streak, Lockhart is a Bruce Springsteen devotee and baseball fanatic with photographic recall of sports trivia. Friends say he recently showed a hint of a midlife crisis by indulging himself with a maroon Saab convertible.
"He's a likable guy who doesn't seem to have a huge ego," says CBS's Bill Plante. But it is a measure of Lockhart's relationship with the president, forged over long days and nights on the campaign trail, that no other serious contender emerged for the job.
"Clinton really, really likes him," McCurry says. "He's always liked partisan shots taken with a little humor, and Joe is very good at that."
To his colleagues, Lockhart is a workhorse, not a flash-and-dash man, who plodded his way to the top job. "He did it without a lot of elbows," says presidential counselor Doug Sosnik. "He could have worked the cocktail party circuit and the politics of the building and he might have gotten ahead more quickly, but that's not who he is. He made no bones about the fact he'd like to have the job, but he wasn't going to get it by polishing Mike's shoes. He's not going to change to placate people."
When Rep. Dan Burton called Clinton a "scumbag," McCurry took a cue from Lockhart by expressing admiration that the Indiana Republican had attempted "a two-syllable word." When the White House was accused of delaying the Lewinsky probe through yet another legal appeal, Lockhart whispered to McCurry that it was Day 1,400 of the Kenneth Starr investigation -- and that became the sound bite on all the networks.
"He's fed me a lot of lines that I've gotten credit for," McCurry confesses.
Yet Lockhart has picked perhaps the worst possible moment to move into the spacious West Wing office with floor-to-ceiling windows that was occupied by Ron Ziegler during Watergate. Clinton's admission that he misled the country about his affair with Lewinsky has jeopardized his presidency and shaken loyalists like Lockhart who were sent out to doggedly defend him.
"It makes the job harder when you've got a credibility problem, and we've got one of those right now," he admits. "It'll be a slow, painstaking process of repairing the credibility damage."
Pressed further about Clinton's lie, Lockhart turns opaque, saying, "I'm trying as hard as I can not to be quotable." Still, he says of his new job: "Most of my friends think I'm absolutely out of my mind. I can't build a compelling case that they're wrong."
Lockhart's challenge is to be a body blocker for a president facing possible impeachment while satisfying the minimum dietary requirements of voracious reporters -- and their bosses. Yesterday, on his own initiative, Lockhart came to The Washington Post newsroom to pay a courtesy call on Executive Editor Leonard Downie.
In the polarized atmosphere of the White House, however, aides who get along with journalists often come under suspicion. "When people here get off ranting about the unfairness of the press, Joe will say, 'Wait a minute, here's how it works,' " a White House official says. "Internally, some people think he's too pro-press."
But Lockhart, who has a bit of a temper, has also gotten into shouting matches with reporters. And he doesn't always conceal his disdain for his former profession. When a New York Times reporter asked him about the political nature of a White House legal appeal, Lockhart snapped: "I'm not going to waste my breath trying to convince a cynical press corps."
That, of course, is now his job.
THE MESSENGER, PART I
In 1980, the future presidential press secretary dropped out of Georgetown University and became a bicycle messenger.
"My father was pretty freaked out," he recalls. This led to a serious discussion in which Raymond Lockhart, who spent decades running special-events coverage for NBC, tried to instill a sense of direction in his 20-year-old son. Joe had grown up in the New York suburb of Suffern, a boy with four sisters, and he had developed the natural resistance to doing what his dad did. But he liked politics and was surprised to learn that candidates had aides who dealt with the press.
A quick phone call by his father led to a volunteer spot in Jimmy Carter's reelection campaign. That summer, however, Lockhart left to become an NBC foot soldier, writing for the network's internal wire at the Democratic National Convention in New York. Tom Brokaw gave the troops a speech on how to sneak onto the floor without credentials. Lockhart managed to do it every night.
Afterward, Lockhart called Carter's campaign press secretary, Linda Peek Schacht, and talked his way into a paying job after waiting until her secretary left so Schacht would pick up the phone herself. "He showed remarkable patience even then, an ability to keep his cool," she says.
The following year Lockhart approached Dick Davis, who was running for lieutenant governor of Virginia. He got the press secretary's job when the woman who held it became a Busch Gardens singer because the gig paid better. Lockhart fed negative information about Davis's opponent to a Washington Post reporter, which helped Davis win the election.
In 1982, Gannett hired Lockhart to help make a splash for its planned national newspaper. On the first night that USA Today was published, Lockhart took a limousine to Dulles, hopped on Chairman Al Neuharth's corporate jet to New York, was met by Neuharth's driver and delivered 40 copies to Brokaw and other Manhattan media mavens. He even gave a USA Today cap to Willard Scott, who wore it on the "Today" show.
But politics seemed to exert a magnetic pull. Within months Lockhart, who by now had gotten his degree in European history, had climbed aboard Walter Mondale's presidential campaign. He was responsible for the care and feeding of the network cameramen and technicians, riding with them on the "zoo plane" and helping them find backdrops for better shots.
"There's a tendency in campaigns to see the guys who provide the pictures and sound as lesser human beings," says former Mondale aide Dayton Duncan. "Joe didn't treat them that way, and they appreciated that."
Lockhart was working against McCurry, who was Sen. John Glenn's campaign spokesman at the time. When Glenn's presidential campaign crashed and burned, McCurry suggested that his deputy, Laura Logan, join the Mondale press operation.
"I was kind of overwhelmed by the fact that Joe could do this enormous task without being too ferocious about it," Logan says. Campaign adrenaline turned to romance, and the two were later married.
Lockhart briefly worked for Paul Simon in the Senate, but he hated the Capitol's molasses pace. Once again, he drifted back to the media. He did a stint with ABC in Chicago, then became a CNN assignment editor here. "He comes from a family where television is sort of in the blood," his wife says.
Lockhart did some off-air reporting on the Iran-contra scandal, once making dozens of calls to track down an old college photo of shadowy operative Albert Hakim. But his main job was moving reporters and crews around the city. "The assignment desk is pandemonium, but no matter what was falling apart around him, he was always very calm and in control," says Pat Reap, a CNN producer.
The two men also drank beer and played poker, and when the New York Mets were one game from clinching the division title, Lockhart, a lifelong fan, dragged Reap to see them play in Philadelphia. Reap bailed out after the Mets lost Friday night and Saturday, but Lockhart insisted on staying until Sunday -- and was making plane reservations for the next game in Los Angeles when the Mets finally won.
Eventually, Lockhart grew frustrated with the fledgling cable network -- "They felt good news was cheap news," he says -- and his next stop was Michael Dukakis's ill-fated campaign. Perhaps the most memorable day on the campaign plane was the last one, when Lockhart belted out a bunch of Springsteen tunes.
Professionally, Lockhart still seemed born to run, and he tried his hand at corporate PR with the high-powered firm of Robinson, Lake, Lerer & Montgomery, which would recruit McCurry as well. But ABC soon shipped Laura Logan to London, and Lockhart quit to follow her.
After looking for work for months, Lockhart became a freelance producer for NBC and helped cover the revolution in Romania. He applied for a producer's job at British-based Sky News and was stunned when executives there wanted him for on-air work.
"In the great British tradition, they took me to a pub for lunch to see if I could drink," Lockhart says. Soon his daily business reports were running back home on Fox, albeit at 5 a.m.
Sky News dispatched him to Washington to report on the Gulf War, but in classic show biz fashion, his program was later canceled. So Lockhart became a London representative for Robinson, Lake, where one of his clients was a D.C. law firm representing the government of Abu Dhabi. The emirate's ruling family was the major stockholder in BCCI, the bank at the center of an unfolding global scandal.
Whenever a charge was made, Abu Dhabi authorities would do nothing for weeks and then issue a terse "no comment." Lockhart tried to tutor them in the art of damage control. One day, an Abu Dhabi official called him after putting out a statement.
"You very proud of me, right?" Lockhart recalls the man saying. "We respond in same news cycle."
When Lockhart returned to Washington after six years, his pal McCurry grabbed him as chief spokesman for the Clinton reelection campaign. Lockhart became a walking sound-bite machine, riddling the opposition with rhetorical fire. At times it seemed as if he were running against Bob Dole:
"After collecting hundreds of thousands from tobacco interests, Bob Dole today announces that cigarettes are not addictive."
"Bob Dole has made a career out of negative politics, and choosing insults over ideas."
"Bob Dole demonstrated today who is really calling the shots in his campaign -- Pat Robertson and the extreme right-wing radicals of the Republican Party."
But Lockhart did more than take partisan potshots. He called reporters traveling with Dole, tracked them down in hotel rooms, tried to get into the other guy's story. If Dole was about to give a speech on taxes, Lockhart would fax research material to the Dole reporters before the candidate spoke. And Lockhart wasn't shy about complaining.
"He does not hesitate to pick up the phone and get in your face when he thinks he's got a point," says CNN's King. "A lot of the time he's right. He's an aggressive advocate. He's pretty tenacious in pushing his view."
With Clinton cruising in the polls, Lockhart was finally enjoying life with a winner. Then, two weeks before Election Day, his mother died. At the funeral, Lockhart delivered a bittersweet eulogy for the woman who was once Jack Benny's producer. The next day, at a campaign stop, Lockhart was touched when the president spent time talking to his sisters about their loss.
Once Clinton was reelected, Lockhart received a slew of lucrative corporate offers, including a senior vice president's job at America Online. He was sorely tempted; he had been on the road so long that his 2-year-old daughter, Clare, was afraid to be alone with him.
But McCurry kept pressing his friend to join the press office. "Someday you should think about doing the job I'm doing now," he recalls telling Lockhart. "I can't see myself making it to the end of the second term." McCurry discussed the idea with Clinton and concluded that "we could never hold out to Joe that it was a done deal, but he'd certainly have a shot at the job."
The pressure campaign began. Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles called. Senior aides Rahm Emanuel and Sosnik called.
"Deep down, he wanted to work at the White House," says his friend Peter Hutchins, a Democratic media consultant. "It was a moment in life that doesn't come along often. Joe just felt that to the core."
THE BAD COP
One thing Lockhart understands is the media's rush to embrace conventional wisdom. That proved useful in the spring of 1997, when his first White House assignment was to help get Alexis Herman confirmed as labor secretary.
Herman was being buffeted by an array of financial allegations. Lockhart knew he had to move quickly when the New York Times reported that "some White House officials are increasingly pessimistic that Alexis Herman can be confirmed."
He called the Associated Press, ABC, The Washington Post and others to knock down the story. He had Erskine Bowles call the Times. He told Bowles that Herman needed a show of presidential support. The next morning, when Clinton was talking to reporters about Medicaid, he said: "Let me just make one other comment here. . . . There has still not been a hearing scheduled for Alexis Herman. I think that is a big mistake."
Once Herman was confirmed, Lockhart became a deputy press secretary. "He took a lot of heat off McCurry," says Lorraine Voles, former communications director for Vice President Gore. "He was quickly sized up by people as a go-to guy."
Gore apparently agreed, for he later tried to lure Lockhart to be his chief spokesman. Instead, Lockhart became Clinton's chief scandal flack after the Lewinsky saga erupted, chiding reporters for what he described as shoddy stories or demanding that they investigate leaks by Starr's office.
"There's a good-cop/bad-cop thing going on between us," McCurry says. "I can always be Mr. Nice Guy and he can be a little sharper."
On the morning of Sunday, Feb. 22, Lockhart and Voles were heading for a long-delayed outing. Their families met at church, then went to Chevy Chase Pavilion for breakfast. Lockhart arrived late, and then his beeper went off. He walked to a pay phone, came back and excused himself. "We saw him for a total of eight minutes," Voles says.
It turned out that Joe diGenova, the former U.S. attorney, had charged on "Meet the Press" that he and his wife, former prosecutor Victoria Toensing, were being investigated by private detectives with ties to the Clinton camp. After checking with White House lawyers, Lockhart put out a statement denying that anyone connected with the president "has hired or authorized any private investigator to look into the background of Mr. diGenova [or] Ms. Toensing."
But the statement soon became, well, inoperative. It turned out that Clinton's lawyers had retained the services of private eye Terry Lenzner. The White House had to issue another statement saying it was free to gather "public information" but was not probing the "personal lives" of diGenova and Toensing.
"Everyone assumes the lawyers screwed me and hung me out to dry," Lockhart says. "That's not really the case." Instead, he says, he didn't ask enough questions. "I do not believe I intentionally misled reporters that Sunday, but I take responsibility for the fact they were misled."
For all Lockhart's savvy about the media, he is sharply critical of journalists determined to turn over every last scandalous rock. "This is where I'll have a problem with reporters," he says. "Reporters think all information is good, everyone should know everything. I don't believe that."
Each night at 6:30, Lockhart joins other top strategists in White House chief counsel Charles Ruff's second-floor office to watch the network news. "He's the only person around who knows how electronic journalism makes their sausage," Sosnik says. "He'll watch how one network breaks a story on their morning show and talk about their psychology and how they're vested in that story and will play it up on the evening news, while the other networks won't want to make it a big deal."
The long hours have taken their toll at his Chevy Chase, D.C., home; Logan recently quit her ABC job so one of them could devote more attention to Clare, now 4. "We just kind of looked at each other and said, 'This is ridiculous,' " she says.
As Clinton battles to salvage his presidency, Joe Lockhart will increasingly become the public face of a damaged administration, risking his own credibility in the process. During last week's trip to Russia and Ireland, Lockhart spoke briefly with the boss about his Lewinsky lie -- "more nonverbal than verbal," he says -- and pronounced himself satisfied.
"I personally don't judge people by one factor in their life," Lockhart says. "I judge people by the total of their character. I've known the president for two years now, and I'm still proud to work for him. Maybe I know more about him than the average person who reads the newspaper."
Although he regularly plays hearts with Clinton aboard Air Force One, Lockhart does not delude himself that he is the president's pal.
"I wouldn't describe the relationship as close," he says. "I'm the hired help."
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