Fleischer Paints Revealing Portrait of Press

“Biography,” Lord Acton once wrote, “should be written by an acute enemy.”

If that is so, perhaps I am not exactly the best reviewer for Taking Heat, Ari Fleischer’s memoir of his years as President Bush’s press secretary. As Fleischer himself told our regular group of White House correspondents at his last “gaggle” (the morning briefing for reporters) on July 14, 2003, he had known me longer than any reporter except for Adam Nagourney of the New York Times (who covered a Republican U.S. House campaign the young Fleischer worked on in New York in 1982). Fleischer and I first crossed paths in 1984, when he was managing the Republican primary campaign of a mean-spirited U.S. Senate candidate in Michigan and called me frequently seeking coverage. His candidate lost and the eventual nominee felt that the savage attacks on him by Fleischer’s candidate cost him a close race in November.

In the fall of ’84, Fleischer was managing a Republican House race in Pennsylvania. At one point, his candidate told this much-younger and still-green reporter about an unkind comment he said the Democratic incumbent made about Vietnam veterans’ not being heroes. Without checking, I attributed the comment to the incumbent—who promptly denied it. Fleischer’s man was never able to come up with the source of the quote, my editors were justifiably furious with me, and a retraction was printed. I took full responsibility for the misattributed quote, much to the relief of campaign quarterback Fleischer, whose candidate went on to lose a close race. (In his book, Fleischer recalls Newsweek’s Martha Brant’s explaining stories in the “too good to check” category.  “Sometimes reporters get a tip, she said, that is so juicy and they want it to be true so badly, it’s ‘too good to check.’”).

So while it is a reach to report (as the liberal blog Daily Kos did) that Fleischer and I are “great friends,” we do go back a long way. But whether you know Fleischer well or just watched his afternoon sparring sessions with reporters on C-SPAN, you will surely learn from and enjoy Taking Heat. Rich in quips about the increasingly left-of-center press and full of humorous insights into the men and women who cover the President, Fleischer’s book provides both a fast-paced account of recent events and a provocative portrait of the Fourth Estate.

The author has a unique perspective from which to view both the Bush Administration and the White House correspondents. Since the modern White House press secretary’s job was created under Franklin D. Roosevelt, press secretaries have usually been professional journalists (FDR’s Steve Early worked for Path???? © News and Gerald Ford’s Jerry terHorst was Washington bureau chief for the Detroit News) or longtime associates of the President (Lyndon Johnson’s Horace Busby and Jimmy Carter’s Jody Powell worked for their bosses years before they reached the White House). Fleischer is a seasoned campaign operative and, in fact, one of only two press secretaries who had worked for a nomination rival of the President they eventually served. (Fellow campaign gun-for-hire James Brady was John Connally’s spokesman until Connally folded in ’80 and Brady signed on with Ronald Reagan. Fleischer had been press secretary to Elizabeth Dole in 2000, and after her campaign ended, he took the same job with candidate Bush.)

Recalling his pre-Bush days as a congressional press secretary, Fleischer noted that he once asked a group of a dozen reporters how many voted for President Clinton in the 1996 election. Eleven hands went up. “So,” he said, “only one of you voted for Sen. [Bob] Dole.” A dumbfounded Fleischer was then told that this wasn’t so, that the one who didn’t raise his hand had voted for Ralph Nader.

“Give me a newsroom that consists of 11 Ronald Reagan voters and one Pat Buchanan voter,” he concludes, “and I’ll bet the news would come out differently. Stories that are today on the front page would be buried inside or they wouldn’t appear at all.” Hence, in the last election, the press “turned their guns” on Bush over his attendance record in the National Guard but “they largely gave Sen. John Kerry a pass over his failure to show up for three-quarters of the public hearings of the Senate Intelligence Committee from 1993 to 2001, and his refusal to release his attendance record for the committee’s private meetings.”

But Fleischer stops short of condemning the White House press corps as outright leftists, concluding: “Their most pressing bias is in favor of conflict and fighting. If the press find someone fighting, they love it and cover it. If people aren’t fighting, the press are pretty good at getting them to fight.” He cites numerous cases of reporters’ attempting to find disagreement between Bush and John McCain over the senator’s pet issue of campaign finance reform or to make something of the difference on the abortion issue between Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Regular watchers of the White House press briefings will enjoy Fleischer’s wry portraits of some of the Fourth Estate with whom he dueled on a daily basis: Mark Knoller of CBS Radio (“one of the most respected veteran reporters in the White House, [who] told me he decided to skip the [televised afternoon] briefing and attend only the [un-televised morning] gaggle, adding he didn’t know how I put up with some of the questions I was asked at the briefing”); Ivan and Sarah Scott, venerable husband-and-wife team of radio reporters for generations; and Les Kinsolving, former Episcopal priest and now radio talk-show host, whose wordy questions “added his own ring to the three-ring circus called the White House briefing room.” Finally, there’s Helen Thomas, senior White House correspondent and Fleischer’s most spirited antagonist in the briefing room, of whom the press secretary insists “one of the little secrets…is how well we got along on a personal level.”

If the reader is looking for any slaps at his former boss from Fleischer, they won’t find them here. In fact, Fleisher gives the impression that their sole disagreement was over baseball. Fleischer is a fanatic New York Yankees enthusiast and Bush rooted for the Arizona Diamondbacks over the Yanks in the ’01 World Series. Fleischer’s portrait of the President is one of a “bottom line guy.” As the first MBA holder to sit in the Oval Office, Bush often reminded officials at meetings that what they had said they would do at earlier sessions. Recalling how the President likened the War on Terror to Reagan’s telling Mikhail Gorbachev, “Tear down this wall,” Fleischer says: “Reagan was clear, concise, and spoke to the big picture. He gave people hope and he defined right from wrong. That was Reagan’s style. It’s Bush’s style, too.


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