Fool's Gold

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MARCH 28, 2005

Fool's Gold

I have always believed that Ari Fleischer is a duplicitous genius.
During his tenure as White House press secretary, he elevated the
mundane practice of misleading reporters and avoiding their
questions into an art form. There was the vast array of topics he
declared off-limits. These included questions about foreign
countries ("You'd have to ask Pakistan") and questions about
domestic concerns for which some other executive department could be
said to be responsible ("I would refer you to the Department of
Justice"). Precluded topics also included speculation about things
that hadn't happened yet, rehashing things that had already
happened and that the president was looking past, and questions
about things that were happening right at the moment. His face
never betrayed even the wildest prevarications. Every word that
escaped his mouth was delivered in the same bland, bored tone, like
a middle-school teacher explaining cell division to a class of
particularly dim students.I'm not sure exactly what I expected from Fleischer's new book,
Taking Heat. I hoped it would offer some insight into the mind of a
brilliant con man. At the very least, I figured it would be
interesting as propaganda. But it was maddeningly dull propaganda,
mainly operating at a sub-ideological level. The Bush White House,
in his telling, isn't deeply moral so much as it's just swell.
Imagine that a devoted young Republican somewhere won a free trip
to Washington, D.C., to spend a day inside the White House.
Fleischer's book is the sort of memoir he would produce. "I ate in
a small, private dining room, a mess within the White House mess
that was reserved for top staff and members of the President's
cabinet. It was wonderful and exciting," he writes. President Bush
"stressed building a team where everyone worked well together."
Fleischer seems to get most excited about baseball. He pals around
with actual Major League Baseball players on multiple occasions,
and even gets to play catch with Bush. ("What a great moment. What
an enjoyable evening.") This is the mastermind I had held in such
awe?

While I was slogging through the book, I happened to be e-mailing
with a conservative I know. My correspondent thought my
Ari-as-virtuoso theory was silly: "When Ari worked on the Hill he
was widely considered to be a moron even by other press
secretaries, who are mostly a bunch of ignorant dolts themselves. "
But how, I asked, could he have run circles around the Washington
press corps? "Ari is a genius like the [Peter] Sellers character in
Being There," he replied. "He was too stupid and too ignorant to
know he was telling lies."

In light of this novel interpretation, I revisited the transcript of
what I considered to be Fleischer's most masterful press
conference. It took place in February 2001. A bipartisan group of
congressmen, led by GOP Representative Charlie Norwood, was
preparing to announce their support for a patients' bill of rights.
But, before they could make the announcement, Bush persuaded
Norwood to renounce the bill, which, until that point, had been the
centerpiece of his legislative career. Norwood's defection killed
the bill's chances. And, since Bush had promised to promote
bipartisanship in general and support the patients' bill of rights
in particular, his move to tear apart a bipartisan coalition behind
the bill needed a bit of explaining. Fleischer coolly made it all
seem normal:

Fleischer: We emphasized to the congressman [Norwood] as well as to
others that the president deserves his chance to put forward a
patients' bill of rights that is going to be strong and bipartisan,
and we expressed to the congressman our desire to work with him on
it; and he was pleased to work with us on it.

So, where the assembled press was expecting Fleischer to explain why
Bush had tried to kill Norwood's bill, Fleischer was acting as
though Bush had somehow helped it along:

Q: I have a hard time, though, telling any difference between what
was proposed today [by Norwood's former allies] and the principles
laid out by the president. Can you give me a couple of examples of
where there's any light between the two proposals? It seems like
something he would embrace right off the bat.

Fleischer: And I think that's an encouraging sign. I think that we
are very hopeful that this year will finally be the year that we
can enact a patients' bill of rights into law.

Q: On this bill specifically--does he support it, and, if not, what
are the differences between them--

Fleischer: Well, we're going to wait to see--

Q: --the principles he outlined and what was outlined today?

Fleischer: We're going to wait to see the specifics of the bill, as
they are drawn up, as we would with any legislation on the Hill,
patients' bill of rights or otherwise. So we will take a look at
that. But the president is very concerned about getting a patients'
bill of rights done and enacted into law this year, as there are a
number of people, Republican and Democrat.

The press conference went on in this vein, with reporters trying to
find out Bush's rationale for derailing the bill and Fleischer
residing in an alternate universe in which Bush had done precisely
the opposite. When I first saw it, I thought it was a tour de force
of propaganda--a master dissembler effortlessly running circles
around his bewildered and overmatched adversaries. But it's also
consistent with the Chauncey Gardiner hypothesis. Perhaps Fleischer
was simply spouting legislative jargon in a random, nonsensical
fashion--foiling logical queries by utterly failing to grasp them.
It's impossible to tell. Earlier this month, a radio host suggested
to Fleischer, with an ironic wink, "that there is a difference
between answering a question from a reporter and responding to a
question from a reporter." Fleischer's reply, in its entirety:
"Well, I guess I'm not sure what that distinction is." It's possible
Fleischer was refusing to allow any ironic distance to come between
himself and his old role. Or maybe he really didn't understand the
distinction. If I ever found out he wasn't lying, I'd be so
disillusioned.

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