The official White House spokesman is the most high-profile public relations person in the United States, and possibly the world.
Certainly Ari Fleischer has to be the only PR person in the country with his own fan sites on the Internet. At one site, visitors are invited to leave messages for the president’s spokesman. Some offer an appreciation of his professional skills, while others appear to see him as a sex symbol. “Even my husband knows of the crush I have had on Ari and I finally now know I am not alone. There are others who see the poise, intelligence, patience and underlying virtue that I do!”
But for the past three years, Ari Fleischer has been the public face not only of the Bush administration but also of the public relations profession. And now that he’s stepping down, it’s worth taking a look at his performance as an ambassador for our profession, in which role he has surely contributed to the negative perception of public relations.
No matter how often PR people explain that their job is all about openness and honesty, if the most visible practitioner of the art practices spin and deceit, the entire profession is likely to be tarred with the same brush. And Fleischer has been perhaps the most deceitful presidential press secretary since Ron Ziegler mounted his spectacular defense of Richard Nixon. (The Houston Chronicle editorial page, which endorsed President Bush in 2000, drew that same comparison: “Perhaps not since Ron Ziegler made inoperative statements on behalf of Richard Nixon ... has a press secretary exhibited such a brazen and cavalier disregard for the facts.”)
So when Fleischer announced his decision to step down, there was praise from within the Bush administration. “Ari was a good soldier,” said Bush media advisor Mark McKinnon. “He has been a very steadfast carrier of the Bush message and delivered a very solid performance across the board in one of the most difficult jobs in Washington. His message discipline was extraordinary.”
But from the media corps, there was little sorrow. “No one’s shedding any tears,” said one White House reporter. “His personal style—the smarminess and unctuousness—was annoying to people. But his deceptions and the telling of falsehoods is what really turned people against him.”
According to another White House reporter, “Ari had an impossible job. He was supposed to talk to the press in a White House that does not talk to the press.” A senior Republican congressional aide explained, “All [Bush senior aide Karl] Rove wants is just a P.A. system. It’s not really a job with a lot of art to it in this administration. Ari is just a guy who goes out there and reads some version of congressional campaign committee talking points. It’s something that anybody with a larynx could probably do.”
Fleischer joined the Bush team in November 1999 after being heavily recruited by advisor Karen Hughes after the dismissal of David Beckwith. At the beginning of the Florida recount mess Fleischer disputed the notion that any voters were confused by the butterfly ballot, claiming, absurdly, “Palm Beach County is a Pat Buchanan stronghold,” a claim Buchanan and his Florida coordinator both disputed.
Fleischer set the tone for what was to come early in his tenure, when reporters asked about the supposed vandalism of the White House by departing Clinton staffers. He told reporters, “What we are doing is cataloging that which took place,” and later insisted, “I choose not to describe what acts were done that we found upon arrival, because I think that’s part of changing the tone in Washington.”
Fleischer didn’t exactly lie about the vandalism—which was later found to be almost non-existent—but his refusals to comment certainly fueled the story, creating the impression there was more to the charges than there was.
But then Fleischer’s real genius was not the outright lie; it was evasion and obfuscation. He had more ways not to answer a direct question than any of his predecessors.
Asked if Bush would sign an energy bill that didn’t include new drilling in Alaska, Fleischer responded: “Again, the process, as you know, is the House passes a bill, the Senate passes a bill. And we’ll go to conference and try to improve the bill from what the Senate passed. The purpose of energy legislation is to make America more energy-independent. And that’s the goal of the conference, in the president’s opinion.”
Similarly, Fleischer would decline to answer any question he deemed hypothetical. After the administration praised an Arab League resolution supporting the Saudi peace plan, but dismissed as irrelevant a resolution condemning a possible U.S. attack on Iraq, a reporter asked why one Arab League resolution mattered but the other didn’t.
“I’m not going to speculate about plans that the president has said that he has made no decisions on and have not crossed his desk,” Fleischer replied. When the reporter protested that he hadn’t asked about the president’s plans, Fleischer insisted: “You’re asking about an attack on Iraq, and the president has said repeatedly that he has no plans and nothing has crossed his desk. So that enters into the area of hypothetical.” But the question had been about the Arab League resolution, a resolution that has already passed and was clearly no longer merely hypothetical.
After the Enron scandal broke on January 16, 2002, Fleischer was even more evasive, responding to questions about whether members of the administration had received phone calls from executives at Enron. “On any topic, on anything?” he asked. “The standard the White House has put in place,” he explained, was to only answer questions about specific calls and not to respond to any “broad, open-ended question.” Reporters persisted, asking “whether these calls were made.”
“‘These’ calls, meaning which calls?” Fleischer responded to the next question. “You said, ‘these calls.’ Describe the calls.”
William Saletan, writing in Slate, offered an appreciation of this approach: “If Fleischer draws a line on how much information he’ll get for them, [reporters] accuse him of covering up. If he doesn’t, they demand more. It’s a no-win proposition. His only recourse is to challenge the game. He does this by accusing reporters of a ‘fishing expedition.’ He refuses to get information for them about Enron-related deliberations until they specify an alleged misdeed, which he can then refute.
“Fleischer is right about the fishing expedition. But he’s playing the same no-win game in reverse. No matter how far reporters narrow their questions, Fleischer demands more specificity…. Reporters ask for information so that they can describe it. By demanding descriptions up front, Fleischer gives himself license to reveal nothing.”
If questions were sufficiently specific, Fleischer would refuse to answer on “principle. When he was asked why the White House wouldn’t give the General Accounting Office information about the roles played by energy companies, including Enron, in Vice President Cheney’s energy task force, he told reporters that if the government were required to expose “any contact” by private parties to media scrutiny, “the right of people in our country to petition their government, to talk to their government” would be imperiled.
Says Saletan, “By emphasizing the principle of drawing a line somewhere, Fleischer deflects attention from the self-interest of where he’s drawing the line.
Adds commentator Michael Kinsley, “Fleischer speaks a sort of Imperial Court English, in which any question, no matter how specific, is parried with general assurances that the emperor is keenly aware and deeply concerned and firmly resolved and infallibly right and the people are fully supportive and further information should be sought elsewhere.”