- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2000

Viewers of televised White House news conferences would hardly think there was any warmth between the reporters and the president’s press secretary the human buffer between the news media’s desire for information and the administration’s desire to keep a lid on it.

Nevertheless, it was all smiles Monday night at the Newseum’s goodbye reception for President Clinton’s popular flack Joe Lockhart (recently replaced by lame-duck spokesman Jake Siewert).

“There were moments in the White House when I didn’t know I had this many friends in the press,” he joked to well-wishers, who included USA Today’s Susan Page, Dallas Morning News bureau chief Carl P. Leubsdorf and the Los Angeles Times’ Jack Nelson.

The crowd was more than a bit distracted by what was supposed to be an imminent ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on the presidential election “Have you heard anything?” was a frequent conversation opener until the word came down that the justices wouldn’t announce their decision that day.

CBS News’ Arlene Dillon, who helped plan the event as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, sighed that it was “a crazy night.” When they chose the date, she explained, they could never have imagined that the election would still be undecided, not to mention that Mr. Clinton, who was tentatively scheduled to do a drop-by, would depart for Ireland instead.

Guests sipped cocktails and munched hors d’oeuvres as they passed by a display of gripping Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs that will remain on view at the Newseum through March. The exhibit, “Mr. President: The White House Press Corps,” takes a cursory look at the White House beat through the years and touches on a few of the more wacky highlights of working in one of the most prestigious jobs in journalism.

Certain hijinks, however, got mentioned only in context since no photographic record is known to survive. Like the time, for example, when Time magazine’s Hugh Sidey went skinny-dipping in the White House pool with President John F. Kennedy. (The pool was later turned into a briefing room by an apparently less aquatic President Richard Nixon.)

Displays incorporating favorite bits of White House press corps lore proved to be the most popular attractions, especially the one on “Pebble Beach,” the 25-by-150-foot area of the White House lawn that turned to mush (and was then covered with rocks) during the daily Lewinsky-scandal press stampedes. Another was the outsized chicken head once worn by New York Times reporter James Naughton at a lively news conference with President Gerald Ford. It is carefully preserved inside a glass case, though its yellow and orange “feathers” looked a bit worse for wear.

“Times sure have changed,” said Ron Nessen, who served as press secretary during the Ford administration but was on the other side of the divide during the Johnson years as a White House reporter for NBC. The press pool, he said, was a cozy handful of reporters in those days.

“We’d go into Pierre Salinger’s office and have the press conference around his desk,” Mr. Nessen remembered, noting that there was an entirely different standard of reporting back then. “You knew who was having affairs… . You’d look down at the floor of the Senate and you’d see senators drunk, but if it wasn’t on the police blotter, it wasn’t news.”

The exhibit made that point, too. One had only to consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s not-to-be-photographed wheelchair, on display as a relic of reportorial restraint.

Mr. Nessen witnessed the development of an increasingly adversarial relationship between reporter and press secretary during his time of service in the post-Watergate years, a contentious time when his staff gave him the half-humorous gift of a flak jacket. It’s part of the exhibit, too, famous for having been passed on to incoming press secretaries throughout the years, most recently from Mr. Lockhart to Mr. Siewert.

But the combative days are now over for Mr. Lockhart, who seemed pleased not to be bombarded for once by tough questions from his former adversaries. He starts a new presumably less stressful and more profitable job at Oracle in January.

Until then, he’s “decompressing.”

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