I'll tell you how good Joe Lockhart is. During an hour with the president's press secretary the other morning, at a Monitor breakfast, I found myself forgetting the president's moral flaws and his recent troubles and seeing a Bill Clinton who - somehow - is rising above his impeachment and making one of his famous comebacks.
Mr. Lockhart, like his predecessor, Mike McCurry, is a champion at putting the best light on a client - the client in this case being the most powerful individual in the world.
That's his job; you expect it. But, like Mr. McCurry, Lockhart brings a persuasiveness to his positive interpretations of whatever controversy Mr. Clinton has stirred up. And, like McCurry, Lockhart clearly retains a high regard for Clinton and believes the president, despite all his reckless acts, is a person he can respect and work for. Both of them have convinced me they think Clinton is a man who wants to do good for his country.
"But," as Lockhart said of his job just before we sat down for breakfast, "it isn't easy."
I can't vouch for the Lockhart picture of a recovering president. I'm out in Chevy Chase, Md., where I no longer get close-up views of a chief executive. From where I sit it has looked like a long road back for Clinton.
But, for a while, I succumbed to Lockhart's glowing depiction of a president working every waking moment to take some step, push some legislation, do anything he can to improve the lot of Americans. Joe said that Clinton would never let up on his work for the nation, that even on Clinton's last day and in his formal goodbye speech he'd be penciling in some impromptu comments about some programs he would like to see enacted.
I don't think I'll ever see a better press secretary than Mike McCurry. How he ever dealt with all that prevarication from his boss and still was able to maintain his own credibility I'll never know. But he did. He kept balancing all the good he thought Clinton was capable of doing against the Clinton who took outrageous risks. And while highly tempted to resign, he stayed on and on. Why? Because, down deep, he liked Clinton and wanted to stay loyal to a man whose dream for America he could embrace.
But, with the crisis past its height, Mike stepped aside for his deputy, Joe Lockhart.
Joe might have said, "Thanks a lot, but no thanks!" He knew he was being handed a hot potato. But, instead, he gladly, thankfully accepted the job. As he said at breakfast: "It's a wonderful job. It's the best job I ever had. I love it."
One of McCurry's success secrets was his access to Clinton. His predecessor, Dee Dee Myers, hadn't had that access; so she failed. The press has to feel that the spokesperson is close in to the president. I asked Lockhart about his access and he laughingly replied: "Better than McCurry's - I play hearts with the president."
"Is Clinton a poor loser?" I asked. "Yes," he said.
"Are you a poor loser?" I then asked. "Yes," he said. He's laughing at these questions.
"Does he cheat?" I asked (there are more stories about Clinton cheating at golf). "No," Joe insisted but joshed that he didn't know how you could cheat at hearts.
I came away from this breakfast with this conclusion: It may very well be that Clinton is making a comeback from blows that would put most humans down for the count. Joe was most convincing. That means he is a very good press secretary. Will I hold that extremely rosy view of the president? No, I will soon recover and be the skeptical, questioning newsman that I'm supposed to be.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society