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Extended Interview: Joe Lockhart

September 13, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: What do you think of “West Wing,” the show?

JOE LOCKHART: I think it’s great entertainment. I like to watch it. But I think that, in addition to entertaining, it raises issues that don’t get raised that often, particularly with an entertainment-viewing audience. I think people who watch the news at night get exposed to what’s going on in the world, and how issues are complicated, and there isn’t always an easy answer, and there’s some gray in governing, in politics. And I think it’s exposing millions of Americans to that.

TERENCE SMITH: Give me an example of an issue that you think they brought up in a way that you think is credible.

JOE LOCKHART: They did a program where a third of the episode involved a recurring story line, and it was the debate on census and statistical sampling. And they did a better job of framing the issue, the politics on each side, and the passions on each side, than anybody in the broadcast world did throughout this debate. We’ve been having this debate for two years. It’s a very interesting debate.

It’s got to do with the future, and how we’re going to allocate our money. It has to do with the politics of Democrats versus Republicans. It’s perfect for the kind of arguments we have here in Washington, and I can’t tell you that I ever saw anybody put this story on television.

TERENCE SMITH: And they got at it better than the news shows?

JOE LOCKHART: They got at it better, they explained it more directly. The news shows mostly ignored it, and in the sense that they did cover it, they showed lots of people shouting at each other, and I think one of the things that this program does is they give you a little flavor of the shouting at each other, but they also give you a flavor of how the process works, and what it means to people.

There are thousands of people who work in this government who are either Democrats or Republicans, who come to work every day because they care, and they are committed to promoting what they think is in the best interests of this country. And you can read the papers, you can watch the news, you can listen to the radio, and you never hear a damn thing about any of them. And this show, while not real, it gives you a flavor of some of these people. That has to be a positive.

TERENCE SMITH: It actually extols public service.

JOE LOCKHART: Yeah. When this first came out, my initial question for it was, “I hope it’s high quality, and I hope they try to get some things real.” It was my sense that there have been other programs that have done a lot for vocations. You know, when “LA Law” was a popular program, there was a study that showed law school applications going up. When “ER” was the big program, there was a big surge in interest, I think, in becoming a doctor.

If [“The West Wing”] shows people getting involved in government, in politics is actually a positive thing, and you can do good things, and it can be an honorable profession. That was my question at the beginning, and I think they’ve answered all the questions in a positive way. It is a quality piece of television or I wouldn’t sit down and watch it more than once. I don’t need to see somebody else playing me on TV. I get that all day.

TERENCE SMITH: How close to reality is it?

JOE LOCKHART: My sense is, in every episode, they throw something in for an audience of about two hundred. There’s one little touch in every show, whether it’s the way they walk into a room, the way they say something. And it comes from the people they have helping them, just I think to keep us quiet, so we can’t say, “Well, that’s not real,” because there’s something in there–every show. I wish I could think of a good example. But every show, you know, I scratch my head and say, “Oh, I guess they did their research on this.”

I think it captures some of the essence of the atmosphere here, the tension, the pace. It captures some of the balancing act that we go through between policy and politics. They obviously oversimplify every issue, in a way, so it can be entertainment rather than reality, but it’s, it’s a difficult job to balance those two things, and my personal opinion is they’ve done as well as they possibly could.

TERENCE SMITH: Do people on the White House staff come in the day after the show’s on and talk about it?

JOE LOCKHART: Yeah. There’s multiple conversations about different story lines that are going on, things that are in the program, things that are real, things that are not real. The biggest thing that goes on here is all the people who feel slighted. You would think that our national security team was protesting in jest, because there’s no national security adviser, and foreign policy seems to be handled by a general. They’re not protesting in jest. They’re really mad. They’re lobbying hard, and every time these guys come through here — and they come through occasionally — they grab them, and yell at them about, “Why don’t you have more national security people?”

TERENCE SMITH: Sandy Berger does?

JOE LOCKHART: Sandy would be one who’d have to plead guilty to that.

TERENCE SMITH: Now one, one characteristic of the show is this pell-mell, rushing through the halls with running conversations on vital issues including very sensitive issues. Is that realistic?

JOE LOCKHART: Well, I took the “rap” for initially saying a 100 positive things about them and then one semi-negative thing when I said, and was quoted in the paper saying, “Who are all these people walking so quickly through the hallways?” which they had some fun with. You know, the physical pace, as you stand around here, is not quite as crowded. It’s not quite as many people, but what you see is what happens. You know, policy does not always get made around a oval table. Policy gets made in the hallway, standing outside in the mess, walking to lunch, walking back from lunch. So I think they have captured a little bit of the unique process we have here, that sometimes makes sense, sometimes makes no sense. And they’ve done it in a way that’s exciting, [but] that’s not necessarily realistic. They have captured some of the essence there.

TERENCE SMITH: Key members of the staff are often portrayed taking the president on, directly, on something he wants to do or doesn’t want to do, and challenging him and pushing him, and saying, “You can’t do that.” Is that realistic? Can a staffer approach the president, push a president like that?

JOE LOCKHART: I think that that is certainly done, and in the composite of what is our workplace rules here, that is done. It’s not quite done in the real-time, “I have an idea, I’m going to march into the Oval Office and challenge the president with this.” It’s done in a much broader context of policy moves, and sometimes what feels like a glacial pace. But the hallmark of a good staffer is someone who can challenge the president.

The one kind of staffer the president doesn’t want is someone who doesn’t challenge him, and those people don’t stay around very long. There have been some dramatic moments where a decision was being made, you know, going forward with a military campaign, making a big policy decision, where the president goes around the room and the conversation can get heated. But more often than not, it is a less entertaining process that’s over time. I don’t think that the portrayal that they use does any disservice to reality. It’s just a condensed version of reality that’s more entertaining.

TERENCE SMITH: What about the press secretary character, C.J.? What do you think of that character and the way it’s portrayed, as somebody who has the job?

JOE LOCKHART: Well, I think they obviously portray her in a sympathetic light, and that’s very welcome in a position where you don’t get much sympathy. I think they capture the tension of trying to serve both the President and the press, and the whole concept of you can never keep everybody happy, and that if somebody’s happy you’re in trouble because somebody’s unhappy.

But I think they have taken head on the whole idea of access, because it’s crucial to the job. You can’t do this job unless you have access, unless you have people who are willing to tell you everything, tell you the truth, and trust you to be careful with the information. I think we’ve done pretty well here.

I’ve watched some of the programs where they focused on C.J. and the access issue, and I didn’t sit and look at the [TV] and say, “Oh, I know what you mean, that happened to me, that happened to me.” But I think there were some people who were in this office before I was, that actually do look at the TV and say, you know, that did happen to me, and that’s a problem.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, sometimes, she is struggling to find out what’s really going on, or get fully informed, or caught up with events. Is that an endemic press secretary problem?

JOE LOCKHART: I think it’s absolutely a problem, but on two levels. One is it’s hard to keep up with the volume. It’s not a question of someone keeping something from you. There’s just so much going on. There’s so much input, that sometimes you just can’t process it, and you just–you don’t have time to go ask the right questions.

There have been previous administrations — or even within this administration — there have been times when the powers that be felt it was in their interest to keep the press secretary out of the loop. Thankfully, coming near the end, I think we’ve sorted all those problems out. But near the beginning, I’m not sure we had, and I think it’s pretty well-documented by those who are involved.

That is a real issue, and what’s nice about the show is they understand it, and they give you the little moral of the story at the end, which is a press secretary can’t serve the function they’re empowered to do as far as keeping the press and the public informed unless they’re kept informed. Because every time they cut her out, something bad happens, and, you know, that’s good.

TERENCE SMITH: Has Allison Janney [the actress who plays “The West Wing” press secretary, C.J.] come to you to talk about your job and how you do it, and how it works?

JOE LOCKHART: She doesn’t call and say, “I’ve got this script. How would you handle that?” It’s not at that level. I’ve probably sat and talked to her half a dozen times, and she’s very interested in what it’s really like.

TERENCE SMITH: Have you seen any real clunkers, things where you just shook your head and said, “No — that isn’t right, that would never happen”?

JOE LOCKHART: Their portrayal of foreign policy decision-making is much more superficial and light than their portrayal of domestic politics. They don’t have all the players around the table. On domestic politics, they have a lot of players, and they do their best to portray that.

There were a couple of episodes where they had members of Congress down here, and staffers in meetings with staffers here at the White House berating the members of Congress. That doesn’t happen. We’re very polite. We may disagree, and we may find a way to eventually get our way, but it’s not our practice to scream and yell at members of Congress while they’re our guests here.

TERENCE SMITH: They have the president doing things, that I wonder if the president really does. In other words, he’s firing people, he’s hiring people, he’s doing a lot of things, firsthand. That isn’t realistic. I mean, does he? Or are those things, in fact, done by others?

JOE LOCKHART: Basically, we have a sort of funnel decision making process here, where decisions get made up the chain, and then the chief of staff will go in with a recommendation and go through 20 things a day with the president, saying staff recommends this, staff recommends that, and [the president] will make a decision. The president rarely bursts out of the Oval Office saying, “Get me so and so, I want to fire these three people,” or “I want to hire these three people.”

That’s just not effective use of the president’s time. I think it goes to the tension between drama, entertainment and reality. If you put a camera in this office, or in the Oval Office, or in the chief of staff’s office, you’d lose viewers within the first ten minutes, because most policy decisions are real hard-going, boring stuff.

But it matters. It matters what your mining regulations are, and, and the press cares about it when something “blows up” or people start to die, or people start getting sick because someone’s been lax in enforcing a regulation, or the regulation doesn’t work.

TERENCE SMITH: You, you made the point at the outset that, that a benefit from your point of view is that people, an entertainment audience is getting a look at these issues and the way the White House works. Is there, on the other side of that coin, any danger that people will get their information about the White House and the administration through this show — and get it wrong?

JOE LOCKHART: I think it’d be a danger if this show was a bad program, and if they were doing cheap ratings stunts. I mean, let’s look at the first season. Look at what the reality of what this White House has gone through over the last three years, as far as what the press has covered, and the ratings the press got for some of it.

When the press was covering sex, it sold, and look at what must have been the great temptation for the producers, and what must have been the great pressure from, you know, these network executives, to [say] “Why don’t you do a couple episodes on that? We know from our news division that sells.” But they didn’t do it, and I think they should get some credit for that.

On the broader question, I don’t really think there’s a problem, even if it’s not reality, because I think the biggest threat to our system of government, to our democracy, is that nobody’s involved. People don’t care. People aren’t interested. And any way we can find to get people in the door is positive, and I don’t personally care if it’s not exactly right. Even if it’s wrong, if they open the door and if people think this is something worth doing, you’re going to start getting the “best and the brightest” to be interested.

TERENCE SMITH: The president depicted in this show is a liberal Democratic president. Is the program depicting this president?

JOE LOCKHART: No. I think if it depicts anything, it depicts the tension between a pragmatic and an ideological president, and it may depict the idea of what some people who were involved early in this administration, wanted it to be.

I think what it does reflect, though, is that the way you get things done in Washington is to be pragmatic, the way you want to be is true to your ideals. And that’s what seems to be the tension they’ve created. As the program wore on through the year, [that’s what] the story line became: “Well, nothing’s going well while we’re playing pragmatic politics, let’s go back to our ideals.” That worked.

I think, somehow, that reflects some aftermath of the early part of this administration. But I don’t think they’re trying to make the president this president.

TERENCE SMITH: They deal with failure in this show. Things go wrong, things don’t work, in this show. Is that realistic?

JOE LOCKHART: This, this won’t come as a news flash…Things do go wrong, it’s part of government and it’s the measure of your effectiveness as a leader to deal with things going wrong. I mean, any idiot could be president if things were always going right.

Things don’t always go wrong because you knew something was right, but you did the politically expedient thing instead. Things sometimes go wrong because they go wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and all you have to do is scramble and try to fix it. I think the show is more simplistic. Things go wrong because someone made a mistake, or things go wrong because we knew we should have done the right thing, but we did the popular thing, or the easy thing. It’s not quite that simple.

But they are quite accurate in depicting a president in an Oval Office with his sleeves rolled up, looking around at his advisers, saying, “How did we get here?” “What went wrong?” And, you know, “What are we gonna do?” That’s right, and that’s part of governing.

TERENCE SMITH: If it’s true, as we’re discussing here, that a dramatization can get closer to the truth than the news reporters who are out in the press room, why is that true? What is it about this place that makes it susceptible to that?

JOE LOCKHART: Well, right now, the, the lifeblood of a White House reporter is cynicism. Cynicism doesn’t work on television as entertainment, and I think it says something very loudly and clearly about what’s wrong with the way the media covers the White House. That comes through on the show. I don’t think the press is portrayed in a very positive light. I think much of that’s deserved.

I think entertainment, ultimately is about optimism and working things out, and a relatively happy ending. That, you know, good triumphs over evil; the right guys win, the wrong guys lose.

And that’s not the rules we work with here in the White House. It’s generally a press corps that has trouble putting into perspective positive things, jumps on things that are negative, and is ultimately to its core very cynical, and that is one of the reasons that the public has tuned out, not just to the politics in the White House.

I mean, I think the real story of 1997, 1998, 1999, was a press corps that was relentlessly negative on President Clinton and was, by all statistical accounts, completely ignored by the public. They made their decisions about this president, and they didn’t need someone on the North Lawn of the White House to tell them what to think.

As big a problem as we have in reconnecting with the American public, I think the press has probably a bigger challenge in reconnecting with the public and rebuilding trust, and rebuilding some sort a connection. And what “The West Wing” does is they have the same basic formula, it seems to me, as we have here. But they’ve surgically removed all of the pent-up cynicism that we’ve developed in this town over the last 30 years, and you see a much cleaner picture.

Obviously, a television show is not going to fix the problems of our political system, but it’s people who are gonna fix it. If people want to get involved because of a television show and they’re going to fix it, I don’t care how it happens.