For the past few months, I have been part of a Washington obsession. Journalists like me who once knew every detail of Hillary Rodham Clinton's byzantine health care reform plan now know every detail of Bill Clinton's bizarre deposition in the Paula Jones case. We live to deliver crumbs of information about obstruction of justice and perjury. We say we're not really interested in the seamy stuff, but of course we are. We blame others daily about stonewalling, and we get blamed for dwelling in the muck. Which, of course, is all there seems to be.
But for a moment last week, I felt purified. The president announced, with real sadness, the departure of Franklin Raines, his well-respected budget chief. But then he announced a successor: Raines's deputy, Jack Lew.
And there was much rejoicing--on the record, a rare occurrence these days. To wit: "When I think of people who are good, pure public servants, here for the right reasons, I think of Jack," says economics czar Gene Sperling. "A pragmatist who knows the numbers and the players," says former budget director Leon Panetta. "He's practical, and he brings a remarkable moral compass to his work," says Eli Segal, who worked with Lew to craft national-service legislation. And the same from Republicans. "He's honest and understands the numbers," says Senate budget staff director Bill Hoagland. "He's tough because he has the facts."
So, who is Lew and why are people (in Washington, of all places) saying such nice things about him? First, here is who he is not: He is not an old Friend of Bill (never knew him). He is not from Arkansas (New York). He did not work in Clinton's 1992 campaign (Michael Dukakis). He is not a member of a key ethnic group (white male). He is not part of any important new Democratic constituency (Orthodox Jew).
He's everywhere. So, who is Lew? At just 42, he's a national policy maven. In 1983, as an aide to Tip O'Neill, he was there for Social Security reform. (He's the guy, in fact, who called Tip and his buddy Dan Rostenkowski, off on a golf junket, to settle the final details of the package.) He was there for the budget battles of the 1980s. ("Making sure we got the facts right" is how former O'Neill aide Kirk O'Donnell puts it.) He was there on health care reform. ("Speaking the unspeakable--compromise," says one fellow reformer.) Then he was there for trade, national service, tax policy, and the balanced budget.
Most people have never heard of Lew because that is how he has preferred it. In a way, he's a throwback to 1937, when Franklin Roosevelt's government reform commission urged that presidential staffers have a "passion for anonymity." At that time, it seemed a doable proposition. Loyalists were expected to labor in the shadows. Now, of course, the idea seems quaint. Spin is a part of the job description; so is schmooze. In the end, staffers often become independent entrepreneurs, less interested in the boss than in their next career move. Lew hasn't spent a career gaming the system. He does his job and has no doubt endured periods in the dark shadows. But he doesn't let on. "He kept the [health care] discussions where they belonged--inside the administration," says former White House domestic policy adviser Bill Galston. Pity. That made Lew a terrible source.
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.
This story appears in the April 27, 1998 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.