Midway through a European tour, President Clinton and his entourage were winging their way to Belfast, Northern Ireland. Word got out that the president's press secretary-in-waiting, Joe Lockhart, had overslept in Moscow and missed Air Force One.
Not content to take the needling and let it drop, Lockhart - once he had caught up with the presidential party - raised a few eyebrows by jokingly borrowing words from Clinton, whose admission of having lied about Monica Lewinsky was hanging like a cloud over the trip."I take responsibility for my own actions," Lockhart deadpanned to reporters. "I deeply regret it. I'm dealing with the people I have hurt the most. And I'll have nothing further to say."
Classic Lockhart. Humility with humor, not afraid to deliver a poke in the presidential ribs.
"It just struck me that everybody needed to lighten up a little bit," Lockhart recalled of that difficult day in the Clinton camp. "If I could make a joke at my expense - even a little bit at the president's expense - and it would lighten the mood and loosen people up," then it was worth trying.
Lockhart figures to have plenty more chances to put his wit to use in a White House under siege. After a year and a half as a deputy to the widely admired Mike McCurry, Lockhart takes over as top spokesman Monday with just over two years left in Clinton's term.
He approaches the new assignment with a mixture of fear and fascination.
"You'd be a fool not to be daunted and intimated by this task," he said in a recent interview in the high-ceilinged West Wing office that is the Grand Central Station of presidential public relations. "It is a complex mix of emotions. I'm serious when I say daunted and intimidated. But I'm also incredibly excited."
Lockhart, 39, is a stocky man with salt-and-pepper hair and a ready smile. A gifted gabber, quick with a quip, he also is known for flashes of temper. He can be easy-going but also boldly political.
The press secretary's most visible role is conducting the daily briefing for White House reporters, an exercise in verbal gymnastics in which one slip of the tongue can carry a heavy penalty.
When Clinton stole into the White House briefing room July 23 to spring the announcement that McCurry was leaving and Lockhart was taking over, he said Lockhart knows what it will take to succeed.
"Joe knows that he can only serve my interests well if he takes care of yours also," Clinton told reporters.
Behind the scenes, the press secretary also must juggle internal White House pressures - don't say too much, don't say too little, keep this secret, leak that secret, humor the press, challenge the press. And because the press secretary speaks not just for the president but for his entire administra-tion, Lockhart must be prepared to handle issues ranging from AIDS policy to foreign policy.
"It's the biggest professional challenge I will face in my lifetime," Lockhart says.
He knows his chances of succeeding will depend in part on keeping the trust of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who called him at home the evening Clinton announced he would succeed McCurry.
"She (offered) very warm congratulations and a very strong statement that she was directly accessible to me and she looked forward to working together," Lock-hart recalled.
Marsha Berry, Hillary Clinton's press secretary, said her boss had no hand in Lockhart's selection.
"But I know she's glad he's the one," she said.
Lockhart himself had some doubt after he and the rest of the country heard Clinton admit on national television Aug. 17 that he had been lying about an affair with Lewinsky. During a moment alone with the president during the Russia-Ireland trip in early September, Lockhart raised the matter.
"I got the sense that the president recognized the mistake he made," Lockhart said. "I, for one, don't need more than that."
Lockhart has had to deal with his share of political failure. During a decade in which Republicans had a lock on the White House, Lockhart in the 1980s was on the losing end of Democratic presidential campaigns three times - Jimmy Carter in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988.
He grew up in the New York City suburb of Suffern, N.Y., the son of journalists. Not far out of his teens he felt the tug of politics and campaign work. He snagged a spot on the Carter re-election campaign in 1980 and then moved back and forth among politics, television journalism and corporate public relations before McCurry persuaded him to take the job of chief spokesman for the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign.