The Bald Truth
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Among the most misunderstood jobs in politics is that of the press secretary, particularly for the White House. People think of it as a glamour job because whoever is the press secretary has his or her name in the paper a lot. With the White House, the perception is magnified. The press secretary is on television almost constantly, which in our communications conscious society conveys the perception of celebrity.
The reality is much different. Being the spokesperson for the president is one of the most difficult professional experiences a person can have. A person who understands this better than most is Ari Fleischer, who served as President Bush’s press secretary until 2003. I can empathize with Mr. Fleischer, a bit because I served as the press secretary of Mayor Menino of Boston for more than three years starting in 2003. And, like Mr. Fleischer,, I know what it is like to be in the public eye and be bald, although I must say he carries it very, very well. Mr. Fleischer, author of a 2005 memoir “Taking Heat” (William Morrow) and an articulate and passionate defender of both America and Israel, has stepped back slightly into the public eye on a ten city speaking tour sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition. I caught up with him on the phone prior to his talk at a local synagogue on the Middle East crisis.
Mr. Fleischer was no neophyte when he became press secretary. At age 40, he had already served as the chief spokesman for the Bush Campaign, Elizabeth Dole, the House Ways and Means Committee, and Senator Domenici of New Mexico. Still, nothing prepared him for the role he had in the Bush administration. “When you’re on the Hill, you’re always pitching. You’re almost never defending,” he says. A successful day would mean getting his boss’s name mentioned in a newspaper article in connection with a proposal or action.
What Mr. Fleischer means by “defending” is that because the president is the head of the entire executive branch, anything that is happening in any of the underlying offices, or even anything happening anywhere in the world, immediately becomes grist for reporters’ questions. Rather than get up in the White House briefing room and provide proactive proposals to the interest and delight of the White House punching bag, the White House press secretary has no other choice but to sit back and listen as reporters fire questions. “The office of the press secretary is the job where you come in wearing a piñata, you know you’re going to catch it,” Mr. Fleischer jokes. That’s a little bit like being the press secretary for a mayor’s office where one is likely to be queried on matters as picayune as a pit bull attack to more serious things such as crime and homeland security.
The press came to Mr. Fleischer with some biases, which magnifies the challenge for whoever is carrying the brief for a president or a big city mayor. “They’re biased. They’re biased in favor of conflict. They’re biased in favor of blame of whoever is in government.”
There’s one thing most of all that makes Mr. Fleischer’s old job sui generis. Because the White House briefings are broadcasted, he became a televised piñata. A normal person who has reached a relatively successful position in life has been trained to engage in discourse. Television, in particular, rewards the quipster and the flamboyant quotemaster. All that life experience and training must be quickly and completely unlearned if an individual is to survive as a press secretary. In many cases, the press secretary must say on national television,”I don’t know” even though saying “I don’t know” repeatedly doesn’t exactly render a person the second coming of Dick Cavett.
Mr. Fleischer had two advantages in his daily battles with the press. In the somber days after September 11, the reporters’ relentless appetite for new information clashed with the public’s desire for the government to go out and get the terrorists. He allowed the reporters, in a sense, to overplay their hand. For instance, he was asked, prior to the formal start of military action against the Taliban whether America had moved aircraft to Pakistan. “I bet everybody at home was hoping I’d say I couldn’t answer that question,” he says.( Mr. Fleischer responded to part of the question asking about President Bush asking Pakistan and other nations for help. “It varies from country to country. I think it’s a safe assumption that in some cases the answer to that is yes, in other cases … it will continue to develop.”) “The public is fine if they don’t know about all our military movements. The public would act badly if they knew the White House was confirming the presence of Special Forces in Pakistan. The public just wanted to win the war. The press wanted to understand every detail.”
Secondly, he had the foresight to prepare for his daily exchanges. He looked to a press secretary adept at dueling with the press, former spokesman for President Clinton, Mike McCurry. “You can dance and still try to be helpful to reporters without spilling the beans. Say the same thing to reporters over and over but in a different way,” he says, explaining the need to provide “enough flavor or color so they could find something to use without divulging something I wasn’t supposed to divulge.” Of Mr. McCurry he says, “I read a lot of his transcripts and I admired the way he handled himself.”
He calls the job as press secretary “the most rewarding, intellectually stimulating, fascinating, wonderful, most grinding, grueling, pressure filled” he could ever do in his life. He now lives in Westchester County with his wife and two children and runs a communications company. He advises Major League Baseball on how to keep coverage off the front page and on the sports page.
After he left the White House, Mr. Fleischer was followed by Scott McClellan, who was not as skillful at keeping mum as Mr. Fleischer, and Tony Snow, whose tenure represents the acknowledgement that the daily press briefing is really a television program. The same communications obsession that elevates the press secretary also overlooks the extent to which any press strategy can solve difficult substantive problems. In other words, any press secretary is only as good as what he or she has to sell. Nothing sells like success. That’s something that has to happen far above the position of press secretary.
Mr. Gitell is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.