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Interview With Joe Lockhart

Aired May 19, 2003 - 20:28   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: There's a developing story still in the timeline today. After spending half his life in government and politics, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer says it is time to do something else with his life. Fleischer newly married as of six months ago says he told the president about his decision last Friday since the timing was an issue. Leave now or stay on through the entire upcoming campaign of '04.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I've been doing this business very happily for 21 straight years. I haven't done virtually nothing else other than government and politics. The last four wonderful years, almost four with Governor Bush, now President Bush. And you just reach a point where you have to kind of look into your heart and know that it's time to go.


HAMMER: So then when is the right time to step away from a particular job, especially this one with such a high profile. We thought we'd stop someone tonight and ask them about making that call themselves. Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary during the Clinton administration is our guest tonight, live in D.C. Good to see you again, Joe. It's been a while. Good evening to you.

What do you think about the job Ari Fleischer did. He had 9/11 on his watch, Afghanistan, Iraq. Your assessment?

JOE LOCKHART, FRM. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He had an extraordinary time. In fact, probably the combination of world events and the technology that now brings the news to us from all over the world made it as difficult for him as I think anyone who's ever held the job.

HEMMER: How taxing is this job?

LOCKHART: You know the interesting thing is people see the briefing. And while the briefing's difficult, it's probably the easiest part of the job. The hardest part of the job is being prepared and doing all the sort of tedious preparation work.

And you know, the reason I wasn't surprised by the news today was about two years into when I was the press secretary, the hard part for me was getting up every morning and doing all that work and being so intense about it. The problem is, when you don't do the work and you wing it, you're in for big troubling.

HEMMER: Yes. Big trouble. One can imagine that.

Listen, back up a little bit. Over the past couple of weeks, there have been some discrepancies about what has been said at the podium and what appears to be the actual truth on the ground. How do you assess right now -- Ari Fleischer addressed the president landing on board the USS Lincoln where there had been -- let's say a shifting field of facts.

Is Ari to blame for this or is he just taking orders for people behind the curtain?

LOCKHART: Well, you know, you always have to depend on the people who get you the information. The real trick in being a good press secretary is being able to develop your own sources within the government, being able to be told something and then go out and check it with a few other people.

And one of the things, in defense of Ari here, information isn't as clear as it always seems to be. In a 24 hour news environment, people want a complete answer now. They don't accept the, well, I'm not really sure now, give me a couple of hours.

So I think that often is the case. Sometimes you just -- you hear an explanation that you like. As much as in the back of your mind, you're skeptical of it, you like the answer and go with it, but they're always worth checking.

HEMMER: Yes, but truth be known, if you said something at the podium, in fact you went back in the East (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of the White House, perhaps you found out other news that would change the facts you just read and you would have to come back out and correct it, right? That happens?

LOCKHART: Yes, absolutely. I remember one scene in the Oval Office where the president and the secretary of state were discussing some policy. And I jumped in and said, well, I don't mean to jump in here, but I just said at the podium that this was our policy. And the president sort of looked up at me and said, well, President Lockhart, I'm glad you consulted with us.


HEMMER: Did you make a correction on that one?

LOCKHART: Well we ended up -- it ended up going in the right direction for me.

But I think the hard part is you've got to sort of put your ego aside here. You're really speaking for the president. And when you get something wrong, the simplest and easiest thing though do is go out and say, I got this wrong, I now know this to be the case. You get into the most trouble when you try to square up what you said with the new information, and show that, you know, you were trying to be clear. That's when you can get into real trouble HEMMER: A lot rattling in the West Wing. Thanks, Joe Lockhart, out guest tonight. Joe, thanks for that.


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