Defense Secretary

By

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 queries.

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 questions.; The Rules

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.

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