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President Clinton has chosen his last two press secretaries very wisely. They've expanded the job description from deflecting criticism of the president to making criticism unfashionable.

No one in the history of the job did more to create a cozy salon atmosphere among reporters in the White House press room than Princeton-educated Mike McCurry.

McCurry's technique reminded me of what Elwood P. Dowd said about "Harvey," in the movie of the same name. Dowd was describing to Dr. Chumley the many facets of Harvey -- the Puka, or giant imaginary rabbit -- that Dowd saw every time he had a few martinis.

Dowd confided to the proprietor of Chumley's Rest that "Harvey has not only conquered time and space, but any objections."

It was McCurry's signal triumph that he conquered "any objections" raised by reporters about his boss. McCurry evolved from lobbyist to matinee idol to ringmaster at the White House.

So successful was he that I found myself rebuked by colleagues when I pressed McCurry at news conferences about the finances of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign, and the unavailability of the president's health records.

"Mike's a really nice guy," a bureau chief for a big Midwestern paper gushed at me after I observed to McCurry that Republican candidate Bob Dole made his health records public and Clinton didn't.

McCurry had just delivered a sermon to 50 reporters covering the 1996 Chicago Democratic convention on their professional responsibility. "You have a moment of truth here," McCurry intoned when asked about reports that presidential consultant Dick Morris had played house with a prostitute and shared administration secrets with her.

In a master stroke of damage control, the Clinton campaign quietly slid Clinton intimate Morris out of town without confirming anything.

It was Dick Morris who reportedly talked the president into signing the election-year repeal of a child-welfare entitlement dating from the New Deal.

After being eased down the back way of the Chicago Hyatt in the dead of night, Morris went over to the other side and now pens anti-Clinton items for Rupert Murdoch's New York Post. Morris has emerged as the most dedicated critic of the Senate bid of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Still, the White House finds Dick Morris useful as a kind of Typhoid Mary.

"If you want to judge the president through the eyes of Dick Morris then I give up," complained Clinton's new press secretary, Joe Lockhart, at a recent breakfast with political reporters when asked about the president's credibility.

White House spin has in three years converted the once influential Morris from a man whose moral derelictions should be ignored, to a columnist whose writings must be automatically shunned by journalist good fellas.

Many of the reporters there dutifully chuckled, an index of how well Lockhart's seemingly spontaneous dig at outcast Morris did its work.

Lockhart and McCurry look and talk very differently. Yet their powers are the same: Mastery of spin, ability to convince a reporter that a story is not a story and management of the herd.

These chores are much easier in an era in which former politicians become anchors, TV analysts, network news directors, newspaper columnists, reporters, or even publishers. The easy virtue of the revolving door has made it tough -- even hazardous -- for a reporter to stay mindful of his or her professional independence.

Lockhart, who has the shoulders of a linebacker and a face as big as Tim Russert's, projects the innocence and benign demeanor of a country vicar.

The late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover insisted that all his agents must have "an affidavit countenance," Hoover's phrase for an utterly believable poker face. Lockhart has this facial landscape.

So when he said the country isn't suffering from "Clinton fatigue" as much as it is from "reporter fatigue" everybody seemed to accept it, for the moment.

"The reporting profession is always ready for something new," Lockhart blandly observed.

So it never happened -- the solid year of wrenching scandals, the groping, document drops, sequestered gifts, the cigar, the posturings of lawyers and of House and Senate members, the pointed finger, the multiple denials, the videotaped depositions, the hearings and the trial.

Lockhart deflected masterfully when he was asked his reaction to the new NBC series about the White House called "West Wing."

"Right now popular culture portrays Washington in a cartoonish way, in a very negative way . . .," he said. "Anything we can do to chip away at this negative image, we deserve a lot of it, but we don't deserve all of it."

It is the press corps, it is popular culture, and not the president who squandered a second term's opportunity to fix Social Security and Medicaid, provide decent housing for the poor, raise the minimum wage, pay our United Nations dues, advance the dialogue on race, reform education, reform the managed care business, and provide prescription drugs for the elderly.

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