Advice to Ari Fleischer's Replacement

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In late March, when Iraqi Fedayeen were putting up surprising resistance to invading U.S. forces, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer faced an obvious question: was the fighting more fierce than the administration had anticipated? The answer was yes, of course; even commanders on the ground were saying so. But not Fleischer. He said the president believed that military progress was "ahead of schedule." Then he ridiculed reporters for demanding to know why, after less than a week of fighting, the war wasn't over yet — when no reporter had asked such a thing. What he never did was concede the truth.

It is a press secretary's job to "spin" — to take a set of facts, however unpleasant, and give them enough English to make the president look good. There is a tacit commerce in this: reporters and the press secretary agree on a set of facts and then quibble over their interpretation. In the process, the administration gets a hearing and the reporters get information. Fleischer did some spinning of the traditional sort, but his 28 months behind the podium are notable because he rewrote the rules of the exchange by virtually eliminating it. He shriveled the practice of imparting useful information and often strolled right by uncomfortable facts, always with a smile. In this, he had his boss' blessing. "Go out there," President Bush told Fleischer one day in March before a briefing. "And don't tell them anything."

Fleischer, who announced last week that he would resign in July, must be judged a success for such fealty to his boss' wishes. Democrats express grudging admiration for the Bush team's remarkable ability to control the flow of information. "There is a fairly large group of Democrats who think there's a great lesson in this," says Joe Lockhart, who held Fleischer's job under President Clinton. But can the Fleischer Method be mimicked? Here are three topics that will test the truth-stretching skills of Ari's successor:


When the president campaigned for his latest, $736 billion tax cut, he derided a compromise that weighed in at only $350 billion as "itty bitty". He has now embraced a bill of just that size, but what was once a morsel is now described as — presto! — a "very robust package." Bush's next press secretary will have to be prepared for more Orwellian wordplay. Once a tax cut becomes law, all the sunny guarantees that were made about its elixir-like effect on the economy will be put to the test as reporters demand to know when the promised boost is going to kick in. "These things take time," will be the inevitable answer. True, but not enough, especially since Bush's promises about the economic turnaround that would follow his $1.4 trillion tax cut in 2001 went unfilled. The White House could blame 9/11 and two wars for that. This time, reporters — and voters — will expect more.


When administration officials made their case against Iraq, their primary casus belli was the store of forbidden weapons of mass destruction that Saddam was allegedly hiding. "Iraq continues to conceal quantities, vast quantities, of highly lethal material and [the] weapons to deliver it," Colin Powell intoned during his presentation at the United Nations in February. After two months of looking, U.S. forces have yet to turn up any quantity of WMD, vast or otherwise, which explains why Fleischer and his counterparts at the State and Defense departments rarely mention Saddam's illegal weapons unless asked by reporters. In another recalibration last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted that no one in the administration had ever said that there were nuclear weapons in Iraq, though Vice President Cheney had claimed just that.

And no new support has been found for another Bush assertion, that there are links between al-Qaeda and Saddam. But Bush's new press secretary may find these are uncomfortable truths he can easily ignore. A recent Gallup Poll shows that 79% of Americans believe the war was justified even if no hard evidence of weapons of mass destruction is found .


Democrats haven't scored many political points complaining about the president's landing on the deck of the U.S.S. Lincoln, but they see opportunity in what Bush said a few hours after he was out of his flight suit: "The tide has turned against al-Qaeda." Just a few days later, the terrorist group carried out coordinated attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, the threat alert level was raised to orange and officials said the chatter among terrorists was as high as before September 11th. On cue, Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden's right hand man, issued a new threat against the U.S., reminding Americans that al-Qaeda's two top dogs are still out there. So has the tide turned or not? "The President said that al-Qaeda has been diminished, but has not been destroyed," Fleischer explained.

Whatever challenges confront the new press secretary — who is likely to be Fleischer's deputy, Scott McClellan — they will all be framed in the context of the approaching 2004 election. Always nervous that the president's official duties will seem politically motivated, the White House wants to conceal any outward appearance of striving for victory while working robustly behind the scenes to do just that. No one will have to maintain this balance more than the new resident behind the podium. In 2000, Bush's team tried to keep the press at bay, much as it does in the White House. But when disaster struck in the form of John McCain's devastating victory in the New Hampshire primary, Bush and his aides were forced to play the game the way McCain did, giving access to the candidate and mixing it up with reporters on the campaign trail. It was a temporary arrangement that ended once Bush took office. Could it happen again, if these issues bring Bush political trouble? Maybe. Just don't expect Fleischer's successor to admit it.