BOCA RATON, Fla. — As the NFL’s annual meeting unfolds this week at a tony resort here in South Florida, the function also serves as something of an introduction to Joe Lockhart, the former press secretary in the Clinton White House, who started Feb. 15 as the league’s executive vice president of communications and top public relations official.
Lockhart, 56, served as Bill Clinton’s press secretary from Oct. 1998 until Sept. 2000, and also has been an advisor or press secretary to several presidential campaigns over the past two decades. He knows just a little bit about managing a large institution through a public relations crisis, so some would say he’s a perfect fit for today’s NFL, which has endured a series of weighty PR challenges in the past five years or so (Think any story with -gate attached to it).
Lockhart gave me 20 minutes of his time late Sunday morning at the Boca Raton Resort and Club for a wide-ranging conversation that covered everything from his childhood NFL allegiances and Peyton Manning’s retirement press conference to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the state of the one-of-a-kind 2016 presidential race in both parties:
Don Banks: They say politics is now covered like it’s a sport. Now that you’re uniquely positioned to comment on both worlds, would you agree with that assessment?
Joe Lockhart: It’s funny, I started by wondering if sports is being covered like politics, because politics is what I’ve done most of my life. But the more I thought about it, I’ve thought that it’s probably the opposite, and that politics is being covered a lot more like sports. Who’s winning, who’s losing, and why? And not so much emphasis on the policy and what will happen. The horse race is the thing.
And the reason I think the real answer is both, is because sports coverage has moved away from simply who won and who lost and why, and gotten into some very serious policy discussions about how the game is played, why it’s played, and issues that really have nothing to do with who caught the most passes and who won the most games.
DB: Did you grow up an NFL fan? Do you have team allegiances to anyone that you now have to submerge?
JL: I grew up in New York. Lived in Queens. When I was two years old, we moved to the suburbs, to Rockland County. And I tell people I grew up as a Jets fan, but I really started thinking about this recently, and for a good bit of time when I was young, I was a New York Giants fan. I can’t remember how old I was, but at the Catholic school I went to, at our sports banquet one year, (Giants running back) Tucker Frederickson was the guest speaker, and I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world. And No. 43 on the Giants, was (defensive back) Spider Lockhart (no relation), and I thought that was pretty cool.
And it was only later on, because of one name—Joe Willie Namath—that I kind of moved my allegiance the Jets. I was a Mets fan, and they both played at Shea and I knew how to get to Shea, and I went to a couple Jets games and really became more of a Jets fan. So if I’m doing my New York politics thing, the answer is both teams. But if I’m doing my NFL politics, I then moved to Washington when I was 18 years old and just became a fan of the league in general. But as I said when I took the job, the real answer is I’ve become a fan of the Red Zone. Because it’s just so cool to watch all those games at once.
DB: You don’t feel like you have ADD trying to watch everything at once?
JL: Oh, I already know I have ADD. So the Red Zone channel feeds it rather than causes it.
DB: Have you ever been a fantasy football player?
JL: It’s funny, probably seven or eight years ago, one of the kids in the office told me I had to play in the fantasy league. I played in the league, I won and I decided to retire. It was like, “What else can I do”? This was eight or nine people in a very friendly league, so bragging rights won, I retired and immediately had my jersey retired.
DB: Give me a snapshot of what your ideal NFL Sunday would be like, at least in your prior life?
JL: Ideal? My ideal NFL Sunday is being in an establishment that might serve alcoholic beverages, with a big group of friends. Watching with an interest in one game, but with seven other TVs showing a game in case my game isn’t going the way I want it to.
DB: Having just gotten this job, can you say whether or not the NFL or politics is covered more aggressively, or is it just the amount of saturation coverage that the league gets that is so striking?
JL: I think journalism, digital journalism in particular, is much faster, much more aggressive, much more in the vein of ‘Let’s throw something out there, and see if it sticks,’ versus ‘Let’s make sure this is absolutely right and air-tight and stands the test of time.’ And that’s just the world we live in, and I’m not arguing we should change it, I’m just saying we should understand it.
For any company or institution, the upside is, no matter what a story is, it seems be gone two days later. The downside is some stuff gets written that’s not fair, and it’s not accurate. But it’s often very hard to combat that. I was working with President Clinton at the outset of the internet revolution, and there was a lot of justification for sloppy reporting and editorial decisions that would not have stood years before, because something was ‘out there.’ People were talking like, ‘Well, I didn’t report this, but because someone else is, and it’s out on the internet, we have to cover it.’ The model changed, and we’re almost 20 years on from that now, and we haven’t figured it out yet. Again, people like me don’t set the rules. We just have to be agile enough to navigate it.
DB: What’s the coolest part of your new gig so far?
JL: I think the coolest thing I’ve seen so far is watching a bunch of really smart people spend a lot of time and effort figuring out if we doing the rules of the game well. I kind of thought that this was kind of a random thing and people would say, ‘Oh, let’s move the kickoff back. Let’s do this, because people will react to this or that.’
But there are some really smart people (on the NFL’s competition committee) who put a lot of time and effort into it and take incredibly seriously how the game is played, making sure that it’s always fair and that the game is as good as it can be. That struck me as really surprising. I won’t give you an particular example, but you can see a three-hour discussion on something that most people would think, ‘They spent three hours talking about that? Wow, what a waste of time.’ But it’s not. That’s probably been the biggest thing to hit me so far.
DB: As a former White House press spokesman, tell me what you thought of Peyton Manning’s farewell/retirement press conference? It got rave reviews, and I’m wondering if you think he hit it out of the park and if it will be used as a textbook example for how professional athletes should handle that kind of forum?
JL: I think it really struck the balance between emotion, acknowledging what the game meant to him and what he got out of it, versus acknowledging his role in changing the game. It’s a hard thing to do, but I’m not surprised at all most athletes across professional sports take the care to do it right.
It was textbook, but the problem with calling it textbook is that authenticity is what really delivers. It’s like you can draw up any play in the world, but if you don’t have the authenticity to execute that play, it doesn’t work. I think the value of spending 18 years in the public eye as a professional athlete, it does give you that element of authenticity. So I’d really hate to go to any other player and say, ‘Do it like Peyton did it.’ Because I’m not sure it’d come across as real.
DB: Last week before a congressional committee in Washington, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s top health and safety executive, acknowledged the connection between football-related brain trauma and CTE, the degenerative disease that can be diagnosed only after death. That was one of the first major headlines created with you in your new role with the league. Many people were surprised by that acknowledgement after all these years. Should what Miller said be taken for face value, that the league was ready to make that acknowledgement, because many have tried to read a lot of different interpretations into what he was saying?
JL: I’ve learned in my four decades of doing this for a living, that speculating on other people is a fool’s game. I would just say simply people should not be surprised, because it was an accurate reflection of where the NFL is on that topic.
DB: It feels as if that moment has been coming for a long time. Do you feel like in making that acknowledgment, the league passed a threshold that needed to be passed?
JL: I’ll stay with what I just said.
DB: Tell me a good Bill Clinton story I may not know. Anything with a sports backdrop to it?
JL: I’ll tell you a story that actually has to do with basketball, and says something about Bill Clinton. We were flying on Air Force One the night the Chicago Bulls won championship four, five, six, seven, whatever it was. And we didn’t have TV on the plane, they have it now. But we knew, because someone had called back to the office, that the Bulls had won. And the President was like, “I want to call [GM] Phil [Jackson] and Michael [Jordan] and congratulate them.” So whomever does these things, gets the locker room on the phone, I think he gets Phil Jackson right away. But then there’s a little bit of a delay because no one can get Jordan to the phone, because he’s not in the room when we called.
So there was a gap where it was just the President and I sitting there talking and waiting. But it couldn’t have been more than three or four minutes. And I said something about the NBA and the game and demonstrated some knowledge of what had gone on in the playoffs and some trend. And he looked at me and said, “Tell me more.” So over the next few minutes while we waited for Michael, I was explaining what I was saying, and he kept nodding and kept nodding. And the thing is, you don’t often get with him nodding, you often get what he knows, because he knows a lot. And finally Michael comes to the phone and it was great, and when we got off the phone, then he asked me a couple more questions about the NBA.
And I walked away after the last question and then I figured it out—Clinton knows more than you about almost anything, but when he finds something that you know more than him about, he becomes a sponge. He looks at you, and a lot of people will say he’ll goes on and on and it’s always about what he knows. But the reason he knows so much is when he comes across someone who has some legitimate knowledge he doesn’t have, he’s going to take every little bit out of you.
And it’s funny because White House photographers take a picture of everything, so there’s a picture of him and me sitting behind the oval office on Air Force One, him on the phone, he’s got the phone in his hand but he’s talking to me, and he wrote it—and I don’t know why it got to him—but he wrote on it check out this unusual thing: You talking and me listening, Bill Clinton. It was just one of those moments that I had insight then to why he’s so damn smart. Because his reputation is as one of a talker, but the key to him is his little less known ability to listen.
DB: It’s an election season like no other. I’m sure you don’t wish you were back up riding on that tiger, but as a political operative, give me a few quick observations about this unique election season?
JL: Well it’s crazy, and I don’t think anyone’s ever run for president before who’s approached it from the place of, I want to put on a reality show and use those rules to market it. I think journalists and political operatives across the board have had a hard time reacting to that. It’s a little bit like, and put political views aside, it’s Mr. Trump figured out how to game the system a lot faster than everyone else.
Now, there’s a long time left before the election and people may say in the end that’s what they want as a president, they may say that’s not what they want. The reality though is, I often look at these things and say, ‘What must it be like for their press secretary?’ To be in the middle of that. And this will do injustice to it, but I actually think it’s a reasonable straightforward job. Because most politicians will go out and say something, and their press and communications people will come back afterwards and provide context or say, ‘That’s not what he or she meant, here’s what they meant.’
With Trump, he says something, and their job is to say ‘He didn’t mean to call the guy a moron, he meant to call the guy an ugly moron.’ It’s just doubling down. There’s a simplicity and beauty and directness to that job that, without regard to what it’s doing to the political system, I think probably makes the job kind of fun.
DB: And now a quick snap shot of the Democratic presidential race, which is where your background lies? Has the Clinton versus Sanders race gone on longer than you anticipated?
JL: I think Sanders has hit upon the deep dissatisfaction with how the system is run among the younger slice of the Democratic party, the way Trump has his hit upon the dissatisfaction among the very angry crowd among Republicans. I do think though that Hillary will be the nominee, Hillary will be the president. That’s me speaking as as partisan and someone who has watched this before. I think the basis for that is I do believe the people who are making a point by being with Bernie, are doing that to make a point. I think they like him, too. I won’t have an ill word to say about him.
But I do think that they will turn out and feel strongly about Secretary Clinton in the fall. I think that is not necessarily true on the Republican said. There’s a story in the paper this morning that says 25% of Republicans say they’ll vote for Hillary, not Trump. Putting aside who’s a better candidate, and I have my views on that, putting aside everything else, if you believe that Democrats are united, which I think they are, and a quarter of Republicans are saying they’ll vote for Secretary Clinton, that makes it pretty hard (for Trump).
Having said all of that, the word pundit in 2016 is synonymous with fool. So I’m very happy to be sitting in the chair I am now, and watching and having the ability to change the channel when I want to. Because when you’re in, you can’t. You’ve got to watch it.
DB: So why the NFL for you at this point in your career? The league has endured a tough last five years in terms of some major public relations issues. You’re now in a position where you can’t change the channel if it’s the NFL Network or ESPN and there’s a breaking story that challenges the league, so how is that all that different?
JL: For me, well, I had been somewhat associated with the league for the past two years doing some advising and consulting. But I know there’s a big story to tell here. And I know how football is not just as a game, but as something that does bring people in. You asked me what my ideal setting is on an NFL Sunday, and my ideal setting is watching football with friends. Now, other people may have different ideal settings, but that’s it’s for me.
But I know we have to be aggressive, in making sure people understand what it is we stand for. And I think that’s both a worthy and interesting challenge, and that’s what drew me to this job.