- Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, is famous.
But I knew him back when he was merely infamous, as chief Republican spokesman
on the House Ways and Means Committee. He spoke with a cool, quick certainty,
unhindered by any sense of conscience. A profile in GQ--not many Hill staffers
receive such attention--dubbed him the "flack out of hell."
- The typical press secretary shovels out fairly blunt
propaganda, the kind reporters can spot a mile away and sidestep easily.
But Fleischer has a way of blindsiding you, leaving you disoriented and
awestruck. Once, about six years ago, I called to ask him something about
tax reform. Knowing Fleischer, I tried to anticipate his possible replies
and map out countermeasures to cut off his escape routes. I began the conversation
by bringing up what seemed a simple premise: His boss, Bill Archer, favored
replacing the income tax with a national sales tax. Fleischer immediately
interrupted to insist that Archer did not support any such thing. I was
dumbfounded. Forgetting my line of questioning, I frantically tried to
recall how it was I knew that Archer had advocated a sales tax. But in
the face of this confident assertion, my mind went blank. "Wha ...
uh, really?" I stammered. He assured me it was true. Completely flustered,
I thanked him and hung up. I rummaged through my files, trying to piece
together my reality. Didn't everybody who followed these things know that
Archer favored a sales tax? Yes--here was one newspaper story, and another,
and finally a crinkled position paper, authored by Bill Archer, explaining
why we needed a national sales tax. Of course he favored it. Fleischer
had made the whole thing up.
- Most press secretaries "spin." Spin is a clever,
lawyerly art, often performed with a knowing wink, which involves casting
your boss's actions in the most favorable light. Practitioners of spin
don't deny generally accepted facts or contest a reporter's right to ask
questions. Rather, they emphasize alternative facts as a way of establishing
the difference between what their boss is perceived to have done and what
he or she actually did. During the Clinton administration, spin came to
symbolize everything reporters loathed about what they saw as a too-clever-by-half
presidency. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, in his book Spin Cycle,
describes Bill Clinton's spinsters as trying "to defend the indefensible,"
by, for instance, insisting that White House coffees with donors were not
"fund-raisers" because the money was raised beforehand.
- But what Fleischer does, for the most part, is not really
spin. It's a system of disinformation--blunter, more aggressive, and, in
its own way, more impressive than spin. Much of the time Fleischer does
not engage with the logic of a question at all. He simply denies its premises--or
refuses to answer it on the grounds that it conflicts with a Byzantine
set of rules governing what questions he deems appropriate. Fleischer has
broken new ground in the dark art of flackdom: Rather than respond tendentiously
to questions, he negates them altogether.
- I. The Audacious Fib
- Like any skilled craftsman, Fleischer has a variety of
techniques at his disposal. The first is the one he used to such great
effect at Ways and Means: He cuts off the question with a blunt, factual
assertion. Sometimes the assertion is an outright lie; sometimes it's on
the edge. But in either case the intent is to deceive--to define a legitimate
question as based on false premises and, therefore, illegitimate. Fleischer
does this so well, in part because of his breathtaking audacity: Rather
than tell a little fib--i.e., attacking the facts most open to interpretation
in a reporter's query--he often tells a big one, challenging the question
in a way the reporter could not possibly anticipate. Then there's his delivery:
Fleischer radiates boundless certainty, recounting even his wildest fibs
in the matter-of-fact, slightly patronizing tone you would use to explain,
say, the changing of the seasons to a child. He neither under-emotes (which
would appear robotic) nor overemotes (which would appear defensive) but
seems at all times so natural that one wonders if somehow he has convinced
himself of his own untruths.
- One month ago, for example, a reporter cited the administration's
recent plan to build an education, health, and welfare infrastructure in
Afghanistan and asked Fleischer when George W. Bush--who during the campaign
repeatedly bad-mouthed nation-building--had come around to the idea. A
lesser flack would have given the obvious, spun response: The Bush administration's
policies in Afghanistan don't constitute nation-building for reasons X,
Y, and Z. The reporter might have expected that reply and prepared a follow-up
accordingly. But Fleischer went the other way, bluntly asserting that Bush
had never derided nation-building to begin with. "The president has
always been for those," Fleischer said. The questioner, likely caught
off guard, repeated, "He's always been for..." when Fleischer
interjected, "Do you have any evidence to the contrary?" In fact,
Bush had denounced nation-building just as unambiguously as Archer had
endorsed the national sales tax. "I don't think our troops ought to
be used for what's called nation-building," said candidate Bush in
the second presidential debate, to take one of many examples. The offending
reporter, of course, didn't have any of these quotes handy at the press
conference, and so Fleischer managed to extinguish the nation-building
- To take another example, after the coup in Venezuela
last month, Fleischer announced that "it happened in a very quick
fashion as a result of the message of the Venezuelan people." But
once the coup was reversed, the administration's seeming support proved
embarrassing. So at the next press conference, a reporter asked Fleischer,
"Last Friday, you said that it--the seizure of power illegitimately
in Venezuela--`happened in a very quick fashion as a result of the message
of the Venezuelan people'; that the seizure of power, extraconstitutionally,
that is, dissolution of the congress and the supreme court happened as
a result of the message of the Venezuelan people."
- Fleischer could have acknowledged the underlying fact--that
the Bush administration initially endorsed the coup--but then expressed
regret at its anti-democratic turn, a turn that the United States presumably
opposed and perhaps even tried to prevent. Instead, he replied, "No,
that's not what I said." And indeed, it wasn't exactly what he said--after
quoting Fleischer verbatim reacting to the coup, the reporter went on to
describe some of the things that happened after the coup. And that gave
Fleischer his opening: "The dissolution that you just referred to
did not take place until later Friday afternoon," he noted. "It
could not possibly be addressed in my briefing because it hadn't taken
place yet." By focusing on the latter, subordinate part of the reporter's
question, Fleischer negated the verbatim quote of his earlier remarks--and
thus neatly cut off discussion of the administration's early reaction to
news of the coup.
- The problem with this tactic is that it's always possible
to get caught in an outright lie. Speaking to reporters on the morning
of February 28, for instance, Fleischer said of Middle East peace negotiations
under Clinton: "As a result of an attempt to push the parties beyond
where they were willing to go, that led to expectations that were raised
to such a high level that it turned to violence." The story went out
that the administration blamed Middle East violence on its predecessor's
peacemaking. That afternoon, Fleischer insisted he had said no such thing.
"That's a mischaracterization of what I said," he protested.
But Fleischer's earlier statement was too fresh in the press corps's mind
to simply deny, and the press continued to hound him. Later in the day
he was forced to issue a statement of regret.
- What this episode illustrates is that stating unambiguous
falsehoods carries certain risks--and no press secretary can afford to
have his factual accuracy repeatedly challenged by the press. So while
Fleischer may employ this tactic more frequently than most press secretaries,
it is still relatively rare--the p.r. equivalent of a trick play in football:
While spectacular to behold and often successful, more frequent usage would
dilute its effectiveness and risk disaster.
- The greater feat is to put yourself in a position where
you don't have to lie. This can be accomplished in lots of ways--spinning
is the preferred approach for most flacks, but that isn't Fleischer's style;
candor, obviously, is out of the question. Fleischer's method of choice
is question-avoidance. After all, you can't be accused of answering a question
untruthfully if you haven't answered it at all.
- II. The Process Non Sequitur
- Fleischer has two ways of not answering a question. The
first is the non sequitur, a banal statement that, though related to the
general topic, sheds no light upon the question at hand. Here, again, Fleischer
is an innovator: Whereas most spinners abhor questions about legislative
process and try to turn them into questions about their boss's beliefs,
Fleischer excels at turning specific questions about Bush's beliefs and
intentions into remedial-level civics-class descriptions of process. For
example, asked last month if Bush would sign an energy bill that didn't
include new drilling in Alaska, here was Fleischer's response in full:
"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." Will Bush sign a campaign finance bill
that doesn't restrict union dues? Fleischer's reply in full: "The
president is looking forward to working together to bring people together
so he can sign a bill."
- At his best, Fleischer can fasten together clumps of
non sequiturs into an elaborate web of obfuscation. Last year Bush persuaded
GOP Representative Charlie Norwood to back off his own patients' bill of
rights just before the other co-sponsors held a press conference, effectively
splitting up a bipartisan coalition. Yet patients' rights was popular,
and Bush wanted to present himself as supporting the bill he had just scuttled.
The task of disseminating this message fell to Fleischer, and the result
was inspired. The transcript of that afternoon's press conference reads
like dialogue from a David Mamet film:
- Fleischer: [W]e're going to be prepared to work with
a number of people to get it done. Q: You would work with the people, including
the ones who put the bill forward today? Why won't you work with them?
Fleischer: Absolutely. Absolutely we will. Q: So why are you asking lawmakers
not to go with them, to stay with us? Fleischer: Again, I think the president
is just in a position now where we want to begin the process, begin this
year working directly with some of the more influential people who have
been part of the patients' bill of rights in the past, and we'll continue
to do that.
- A few minutes later Fleischer stated, "We view what's
happening today on the Hill"-- that is, the press conference Bush
had pressured Norwood to abandon--"as very helpful to the process."
But, a reporter asked, "If it's helpful ... why was Norwood asked
not to attend today's event?" Fleischer explained, "I think congressmen
decide every day whether they want to co-sponsor bills or not co-sponsor
bills." His purpose in this exercise was not to make the press corps
see Bush's side of the argument, or even to make any argument at all, but
simply to befuddle them with non sequitur nonsense until they ran out of
- III. The Rules
- After the non sequitur, the other kind of non-answer
is more straightforward: the open refusal to reply. This is tricky business.
A press secretary, after all, is supposed to provide information to the
press, not deny it. The straight rebuff, then, must be couched in terms
of some broader principle. And it is here that Fleischer's particular genius
is on clearest display. As press secretary, Fleischer has developed a complex,
arbitrary, and constantly shifting set of rules governing what questions
he can answer. If a reporter's question can be answered simply by reciting
talking points about process, Fleischer will comply. If he can't, he will
find a way to rule it out of order.
- Fleischer declines to answer any question he deems "hypothetical."
This, too, is a common press-secretary tactic, but Fleischer has a talent
for finding hypotheticals buried in what would seem to be extremely concrete
questions. Earlier this year, for example, 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. "That wasn't my question," the reporter retorted. 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." Fleischer redefined
a question about something that had happened--the Arab League resolution--into
a question about something that hadn't--a U.S. attack on Iraq--and then
dismissed the latter as hypothetical.
- Perhaps the easiest way for Fleischer to dismiss questions
is to suggest that he is not the appropriate person to answer them--something
he does with remarkable promiscuity. Do the administration and Pakistan
agree on extraditing the killers of Daniel Pearl? "You'd have to ask
Pakistan," Fleischer replied on February 25. Did Israel's offensive
in the West Bank enhance its security? "That's a judgment for Israel
to make," he said on April 16. In short, if a question can be said
to pertain to another country, that discharges the White House from having
to state an opinion.
- Fleischer uses the same technique for discussions of
domestic policy. Does the administration want Congress to move ahead with
campaign finance reform? "The president does not determine the Senate
schedule," Fleischer explained on March 19. "The Senate leadership
determines the Senate schedule." (That hasn't stopped the White House
from demanding the Senate take up other legislation on numerous occasions.)
Does an anti-administration court ruling strengthen the U.S. General Accounting
Office's case for demanding energy documents? "That's for the courts
to judge, not for me," Fleischer demurred on February 28. What about
the recent decision by Stanley Works to relocate to Bermuda, which several
members of Congress condemned? "I can't comment on any one individual
corporate action." Indeed, Fleischer will even pawn off questions
involving other branches of the Bush administration. Asked this spring
whether Army Secretary Thomas White has lived up to the standards Bush
set out after Enron, Fleischer answered, "Anything particular to Enron,
I would refer you to the Department of Justice." What sort of access
did GOP donors get to White House officials at a recent fund-raiser? Ask
the Republican National Committee, replied Fleischer. Has Colin Powell
met with Ariel Sharon? Ask the State Department. Did the administration
intervene to allow more pollutants in Alabama? Ask the Environmental Protection
Agency. And so on.
- When questions cannot be fobbed off on other departments,
Fleischer often rephrases them to make them seem so complex and esoteric
that he couldn't possibly be expected to answer them. Asked two weeks ago
to comment on a blockbuster quote by Bush counterterrorism official Richard
Clarke prominently featured in a front-page Washington Post story, he replied,
"I do not receive a daily briefing on his verbatim quotes." One
year ago Fleischer listed six members of Congress who would appear at an
event with Bush. Asked how many were Democrats--this was two months into
Bush's tenure, when he was making a big deal of meeting with members of
the other party--Fleischer said, "I don't have any breakdown here."
(The breakdown was six Republicans, no Democrats.) Last year Fleischer
ticked off for the press Bush's legislative priorities. "Where does
campaign finance rank in those priorities?" asked one. "I don't
do linear rankings," Fleischer replied, as if to suggest that answering
the question would require a sophisticated mathematical analysis.
- To emphasize his inability to answer these complicated
questions, Fleischer occasionally pleads lack of expertise. Last year he
touted a drop in oil prices since Bush took office and plugged the president's
energy plan. Would the energy plan, which would take effect over the long
run, impact short-term prices? "I'm not an economist," he demurred.
What does the administration think about an unfavorable court ruling? "I'm
not a lawyer." Has Yasir Arafat been elected democratically? "I
personally am just not expert enough to be able to answer that question....
That was before I came to this White House."
- For any administration, the most damaging information
often comes in the form of anonymous quotes from White House staffers.
Leaks rarely happen in this administration; but when they do, they are
often more damaging for their infrequency. So in order to avoid answering
questions arising from such leaks, Fleischer simply denies their veracity.
Asked, in the wake of the Venezuelan coup, about a quote in The New York
Times attributed to a "Defense Department official," Fleischer
went on the attack:
- Fleischer: And what's the
name of the official?
- Q: The official is unnamed.
But it is--
- Fleischer: Then how do you
know he's "top"?
- Q: It says, according to
The New York Times. So is this official mistaken?
- Fleischer: You don't know
the person's name?
- Q: No, I don't know the--
- Fleischer: The person obviously
doesn't have enough confidence in what he said to say it on the record....
So I think if you can establish the name of this person who now without
a name you're calling "top," we can further that. But I think
you're--you need to dig into that.
- (Fleischer himself, of course, makes a regular practice
of speaking to reporters off the record.)
- In the even rarer case that an administration official
cuts against the party line on the record, Fleischer still manages to come
up with a set of rules that enables him not to acknowledge it. A few weeks
ago a reporter asked him if Bush agreed with Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill,
who had said he "can't find too many Americans who believe that they
are overtaxed." Fleischer enthusiastically replied in the affirmative.
The reporter, realizing Fleischer must have misunderstood the quote, helpfully
repeated it. "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought your question was--I hadn't
heard that Secretary O'Neill said that," Fleischer backtracked, proceeding
to declare, "I have a long-standing habit in this briefing room, when
a reporter describes to me the statements that are made by government officials,
I always like to see those statements myself with my own eyes before I
comment." Needless to say, that "long-standing habit" had
not prevented Fleischer from commenting when he thought the statement concurred
with Bush's own view.
- Fleischer likewise reserves the right to close off topics
because of timing. This applies first to events that have already taken
place. Upon taking office, Fleischer wouldn't comment on allegations (fed
by White House leaks) of massive vandalism by departing Clintonites because
"the president is looking forward and not backwards." He wouldn't
discuss the firing of Army Corps of Engineers head Mike Parker because
it was "over and dealt with."
- But Fleischer also refuses to address events that have
yet to take place. When campaign finance reform moved through the Senate
last year, he declined to explain Bush's position: "It's too early,
yet, to say." After it passed, and went to the House, Fleischer continued
to demur because "[i]t hasn't even made its way through the House
yet." After it passed the House, he still wouldn't express a view,
because "you just don't know what the Senate is going to do.... There's
a lot of talk about will the Senate try to amend it, will they be unsuccessful
in amending it? Will the Senate basically take the House bill and put it
in a photocopier, and, therefore, send it directly to the president?"
Well, a reporter asked, what if they do photocopy it? Fleischer retorted--you
guessed it--"I don't answer hypotheticals."
- The reporter tried, valiantly, to get an answer one more
time, with a query that was clear, nonhypothetical, White House-related,
and present tense: "Of the two bills that have been passed, is there
any reason to veto either one?" Fleischer's answer? "We're going
to go around in circles on this." You can't argue with that.
- Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at TNR.