And guess what? Lew is not alone. Here's the anticynical other truth: There are plenty, like Lew, who serve discreetly and honorably. Lost (or unnoticed) among the legions of self-promoters are the number crunchers, the substantive thinkers, and the devoted policy mavens--most of whom toil in obscurity at every agency and department. For them, the notion of actually being able to affect policy is still a reward. And for them, the Clinton-era scandals are a source of true depression, because they threaten to stifle the policy process.
Lew's promotion--in the last years of the Clinton presidency--will lead some to say he is just a caretaker. The good staff guys, they'll say, only get to win when no one else is around. That's true some of the time. But this time, with Social Security and Medicare reform in the offing, the stakes are too high for high-level caretakers, and the White House knows it. Bill Clinton has plenty of minions who can take his proposals public. But Lew is the fellow they need to keep them honest.
Lew's politics remain purposefully pragmatic: He may have been trained in Tip O'Neill's liberal shop, but as a budgetmeister, he has clearly given up on his former boss's entitlement state. Yet, as the son of an immigrant, he pushed the administration to reverse its welfare policy and reinstate benefits for legal immigrants. Most of all, explains ex-White House aide Galston, "Jack has moral conviction backed by faith." Lew, everyone knows, is an observant Jew. Even the president tries not to bother him on Saturdays.
Tip didn't either. And when Lew accepted the budget director's job last week, he thanked the speaker (whom he still calls "Mr. O'Neill"), "who taught me how this great democracy works." Then he quoted O'Neill's favorite Suess-like saying: "While it's nice to be important, it's more important to be nice." Even in Washington.