Joe Lockhart once helped successfully steer Bill Clinton through impeachment. Now, as the NFL’s top PR official, the former White House press secretary takes on an equally daunting task: repairing the image of the league and its embattled commissioner
Eight months before his second term ended, a pesky narrative clung to Bill Clinton: The President wasn’t just a lame duck; he was lonely. The Vice President was campaigning for a promotion, the First Lady for a Senate seat, and advisors were scattering to line up post-administration gigs. Clinton was resigned to dark nights at the White House, with nobody to talk to but the portraits on the wall.
Naturally, this suggestion irked Joe Lockhart, Clinton’s chief spin doctor. It was the White House press secretary’s job to push the president’s agenda, shape his message. As so Lockhart, a former television producer and the son of journalists, concocted a way to turn the narrative to Clinton’s favor.
Lockhart consulted Mark Katz, the White House’s humor writer, and Phil Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond. Lockhart imagined a spoof of his favorite TV show, The Sopranos; Dr. Melfi could arm-chair psychologize the president. The actress, Lorraine Bracco, was reportedly intrigued. The idea, however, evolved. They approached Clinton with a script. Clinton barely contemplated before agreeing. Risky? Maybe. But he trusted Lockhart, the man who helped navigate the most inglorious days of his presidency.
The six-minute mockumentary, The Final Days, chronicles a mopey Clinton answering the White House phones, mowing the South Lawn and learning to use eBay, chasing after Hillary with a forgotten bagged lunch. It debuted to raucous laughter at the White House Correspondents Dinner in May 2000. Cable news networks stopped talking about the president’s isolation, and gushed over how funny the he was.
“If Lockhart knows anything,” says Peter Maer, the veteran CBS White House correspondent (who had a one-line cameo in the video), “it’s how to control a narrative.”
Sixteen years have passed since Lockhart—a key strategist for Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the resulting impeachment—left the White House. He helped launch a D.C. communication strategy firm, Glover Park Group, which grew into a national PR powerhouse. Lockhart left GPG twice. He joined tech giant Oracle in 2000 at a time when CEO Larry Ellison was absorbing backlash for spying on competitor Microsoft. He rejoined GPG, then beginning in 2011 served a 15-month stint with Facebook as the company prepared to go public.
Now Lockhart takes on his heftiest public relations challenge since the Clinton administration. In January he replaced Paul Hicks as the NFL’s vice president of communications. The job, as described by Hicks, is “to manage the league’s reputation.” That’s an amorphous role in an organization of 5,000, covering issues ranging from inappropriate Instagrams to criminal behavior to Washington litigation. But the most defined of Lockhart’s responsibilities is also his most difficult: repair Roger Goodell’s image.
Six months in, according to several people interviewed for this story, Lockhart has found that to be a hurdle. (Lockhart declined comment for this piece.) The perception of Goodell—that the commissioner is obstinate, heavy-handed and overpaid—is pervasive. According to a February survey by Public Policy Polling, only 19% of self-described NFL fans had a favorable opinion of Goodell and 28% approved of the job the he is doing. The PR chief has lamented to friends that attacking Goodell has become too trendy, and it is his job to make the commissioner look less like a caricature. Lockhart’s creativity will go only as far as Goodell will let him. So the first step: Get the commissioner to listen.
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“Knowing Joe,” Maer surmises, “he would not have taken the NFL job to be a PR flack for the commissioner.” It is fair to assume those were promises assured to Lockhart upon taking the job. He never had a formal interview.
Lockhart began working with the NFL as a consultant for GPG in 2014. On the Monday after Week 1 of the season, as the Ray Rice scandal spiraled out of control following the release of a video showing Rice striking his fiancée inside a casino elevator, Lockhart arrived at 345 Park Avenue. For the better part of four months, he spent long hours there, consulting with Goodell on best practices and offering suggestions.
During one meeting, Lockhart was trying to catch himself up when he interrupted the group. “Wait,” he said. “Do we have a group that looks at setting rules and setting penalties on the field?”
“Yes,” was the response.
“Well, wouldn’t we need something similar for off the field too?”
A few top executives were lukewarm to the idea. But Goodell, according to a source, liked it immediately. The new personal conduct policy was developed, and put in place later that season.
Now thrust into a full-time role, Lockhart is further revealing his imprint. For example, when The New York Times released a story in March asserting that there were flaws in the league’s concussion studies and drawing links between the NFL and big tobacco, Lockhart and the league didn’t just dispute the story; they launched a counteroffensive. The NFL published a tersely worded 2,500-word rebuttal on its website, demanded a retraction and suggested it might sue the Times.
“When I saw that,” Maer says. “I knew instantly: That was vintage Lockhart.”
But how much freedom is Goodell going to allow, and is that enough to satisfy Lockhart? There are inherent differences between a U.S. president and the NFL commissioner, and while Lockhart helped Clinton—as his GPG co-founder Joel Johnson explains—“come through, and come through more popular than ever,” Goodell’s reputation seems stuck. White House approval ratings are famously fluid, but is there one single event that would sway the public’s opinion in favor of Goodell? Consider the most drastic decisions Goodell could make before the season opener: admit he took Deflategate too far, demand Dan Snyder change the name of his franchise, loosen the restriction on use of marijuana by players. Would that change your opinion? Or are too many scars already formed?
• THE GOODELL DECADE: The commissioner has drawn unrelenting criticism and overseen unprecedented growth. And despite the public’s perception of him, he’s positioned to be the face of the NFL for years to come.
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“I often ask what genius would want a second White House term,” says Ann Compton, who covered the White House for 40 years, seven presidents and 10 campaign cycles for ABC. “And the second term for Clinton was a very tumultuous time. It was one of the roughest stretches for a press secretary, ever.”
That’s best distilled by one hectic day: December 19, 1998. Lockhart arrived to work knowing that Clinton was up for an impeachment vote. But then the script veered.
At 11:30 a.m., Speaker of the House Bob Livingston admitted an affair and announced his resignation. Within 15 minutes, Lockhart knew—as he recalled in a 2005 speaking engagement at the New York Public Library—“the drumbeat of political pundits” would cry for Clinton to resign as well, so he raced to the Oval Office to help Clinton craft a statement. An hour later, Lockhart was pulled into another meeting: The Defense Department wanted to declare a victory after bombing Iraq. “You’ve got to be f---ing kidding me,” Lockhart told security advisors. “A week ago, you had me go out and say, ‘We found out we’re going to get impeached, and now we’re launching a war.’ And today, you want me to say, ‘Yeah, we got impeached and yes we won the war?’”
Met by unamused stares, Lockhart marched on. “I had what we call in the business a communications challenge,” Lockhart recalled during that 2005 event, part of The Moth’s storytelling series. “And I thought, You know what? Sometimes the best thing to do is not worry very much about it, just go out and do it.” Lockhart led Clinton through a pep rally of Democrats on the South Lawn, where he lambasted Republicans and declared he would never step down. Ten minutes later Lockhart was inside the White House, standing at a podium, spinning an entirely different message: There are no Republicans in this country, and no Democrats either. Just Americans, and the Americans had won the war.”
After dusk, Lockhart retreated to his office. A co-worker handed him a beer. “You know,” the friend said. “Except for getting impeached, we had a pretty good day.”
After surviving that, how hard is managing a sports league? So asks HBO’s satire Veep, which this season featured its bumbling press secretary angling for a league communications gig as a reprieve from toxic Washington. Dee Dee Myers, Clinton’s first press secretary, now works for Warner Brothers. “Here in Hollywood we don’t really have crises,” Myers says. “The Sony Hack? O.K., that was a crisis. Someone got shot at a movie theater, that’s a crisis. One of our movies doesn’t open? That's not a crisis, that’s a problem that needs to be managed. The White House experience gives you perspective on what a crisis really is and what it’s like.”
Since the PR fiasco that was the 2014 season, the NFL has increasingly adopted a Washington mindset. The league has relied on the New York public relations firm Rubenstein but increasingly is billing GPG. In conjunction with Lockhart, the NFL tapped former Joe Biden aide Cynthia Hogan for a senior vice president role. But in Lockhart, the league adds a true Beltway insider. Earlier this year the Obamas secured their post-White House digs. They will rent a nine-bedroom, eight-bathroom mansion in the Kalorama neighborhood of D.C.—a house owned by Lockhart.
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Goodell’s greatest strength as commissioner is his unparalleled knowledge of the league. He has essentially never worked anywhere else. That, too, is his biggest vulnerability.
If the commissioner wants to rehab the league’s image, he needs to give Lockhart a seat at the table—and a microphone, too. That’s how it went at the White House. “The press secretaries who are most effective are those who are intimately involved in the creation and formation of policy,” says Compton, the ABC journalist. “Joe found himself, especially at times of crisis, in the heart of discussions, staff cabinet meetings and Roosevelt room strategy sessions.”
Adds Myers in regards to the White House job: “The volume of information you're responsible for in a day… There’s a lot going on in the world, and somehow the White House is responsible for about half of it. The way it worked with [Clinton’s administration] is you get that information, and you help shape the narrative by being part of conversations.”
Lockhart was close to Clinton. “I can’t tell you the number of times we would land on Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base late at night, window is open and you’d see Joe and Clinton sitting there finishing up a hearts game,” says Maer, the CBS journalist. (Lockhart had never played hearts before he took the job but picked it up when he found out it was the president’s game of choice. Clinton reportedly called his new press chief out after a few games: “Everyone who learns from the computer makes the same moves.”)
Clinton relied on Lockhart as an advisor, especially during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Lockhart’s predecessor, Mike McCurry, sustained the bulk of the Lewinsky investigation and was intentionally kept dark on details, so he was not responsible for answering press queries. On Lockhart’s first day as press secretary, the House Judiciary Committee recommended the impeachment inquiry. Lockhart attacked the issue head on. In his old White House office, there was a political cartoon of Clinton holding up two dolls. One was labeled McCurry, with arrows pointing every which way. The other labeled Lockhart, and had one word written across the chest: “Next?”
Several people interviewed for this story related instances of Lockhart ripping into reporters. But they also described him as accessible; a man who would take any late-night phone call, talk at end about his then-grade school daughter, Clare, his beloved Mets and Bruce Springsteen. At the conclusion of his stint as press secretary for the failed 1988 Michael Dukakis presidential bid, the candidate and press corps rode the campaign plane to his concession speech. Lockhart tried to lighten spirits, commanding the PA system as if it were his own Springsteen-only karaoke machine.
He’d get plenty more time in the spotlight. Lockhart’s most visible White House duty was the daily press briefing. “It’s like a tennis match,” Myers says. “The press is hitting you with their best shot, and you’re just trying to return the ball. They’re trying to get you to mess up and say things you don’t want to say, and you’re trying not to.” Lockhart held court as Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing debuted, attesting to America’s insatiable interest in inside politics that the rapid rise of cable news had amplified. Networks broadcast Lockhart’s briefings in their entirety, and many believed reporters had begun posturing for cameras to further promote themselves. “The TV aspect led to another level of gamesmanship,” Myers says.
Conversely, press secretaries increasingly relied on the tool of wit: whipping up sound bites that both appeased producers and took the edge off. Lockhart was known to be expert at this, even when he served as deputy to McCurry. When Rep. Dan Burton, Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, called Clinton a “scumbag,” Clinton “chose to ignore” the comment. Meanwhile, Lockhart fed a line to McCurry: “Chairman Burton’s use of a two-syllable vulgarity was rather ambitious.” That quote overwrote the headline.
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America’s greatest sports juggernaut has never appeared more vulnerable. It’s not just Goodell’s fragile reputation that Lockhart must manage. Relations between the league and the NFLPA, halfway through their most recent collective bargaining agreement, are revealing signs of fracture yet again. Health and player safety issues and litigation continue to loom. If anyone is suited to steer the narrative in the league’s favor, it is Lockhart.
He left his White House post in September 2000, before Clinton’s term ended. This isn’t exactly uncommon for a press secretary. Myers describes the job as mentally exhausting—consider, for example, that the press secretary is expected to accompany the president on all foreign trips—and it is difficult to balance a family life. Some also believed Lockhart wanted to give his deputy, Jake Siewert, a chance before Clinton left Washington.
In announcing Lockhart’s resignation, Clinton addressed the press corps. “Most people think Joe’s leaving for purely selfish, monetary reasons,” the president said. “But the truth is, he told me that I was no longer in enough trouble to make it interesting for him.”
The NFL hopes for the day when their commissioner can deliver a line like that.
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