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Ari Fleischer, Presidential Heat Shield

By Richard S. Dunham On the day of his resignation, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer wasn't going to abandon the iron-willed discipline and parsimoniousness with inside information that have been the trademarks of his three years on George W. Bush's payroll. Asked about his successor's identity, he responded, "As you know, I just don't speculate about personnel."

It was vintage Ari. As Presidential press secretary, he has frustrated the always-aggressive White House press corps by sticking to the company line. Yet Fleischer always did so with a smile, an occasional joke, and with a loyalty and seriousness of purpose that won the total loyalty of his boss. "My job is to represent the President," Fleischer told reporters on May 19, his first day as a lame duck. "And that's what I always remember when I come to this podium."

Indeed, as Fleischer trades his West Wing office this summer for the far more lucrative lecture circuit, that 100% loyalty is how he'll be remembered. I'd say Fleischer has been the most frequently attacked press secretary in my 20 years of covering Washington. While President Clinton engendered hatred from the political right, his press secretaries, by and large, escaped the same sort of personal venom. But Fleischer has found himself a lightning rod for a left wing that has generally been unable to singe the popularity of a President they don't respect.

"NEVER APOLOGIZE." He has been dubbed the "flack out of hell" by GQ magazine, and "Defense Secretary" by the New Republic. In an article entitled, "The Particular Duplicity of Ari Fleischer," NR's Jonathan Chait last year accused the President's point man of employing an aggressive "system of disinformation" to thwart reporters.

Fleischer's philosophy of "never retreat, never apologize, and never, ever answer a hypothetical question" rankled many who revel in the "gotcha" game of Washington reporting. Some critics say Fleischer has done his boss a disservice by so relentlessly sticking to the script.

I disagree. Fleisher has done exactly what his boss asked. Bush doesn't want his press secretary to be everybody's buddy. He wants him to explain Administration positions and stick to the script. Sergeant Fleischer reported for duty and has the battle scars to show for it. So it was no surprise that the President kissed him on the top of his bald head when Fleischer told the boss he was stepping down this summer.

CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE. In many ways, Fleischer is the prototypical Bush employee: He serves as a Presidential heat shield. Among the other Administration officials who have caught flak that otherwise might have hit the President: Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

In recent weeks, Fleischer lived through one of those nightmarish experiences for a White House press secretary. The incident involved the President's Hollywood-style landing on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. Fleischer at first told reporters that Bush needed to take the fighter jet -- rather than a less-dramatic helicopter -- because the Lincoln was so far offshore. It turned out that Fleischer's explanation was wrong, that the Lincoln was biding its time closer to shore so Bush could land with a flourish. And though his answer may well have been the result of bad information from the Pentagon or senior White House staff, his credibility took a hit.

His is a risky business. Serving at the discretion of the President, all you have, really, is your credibility. After years on the job, and newly married, Fleischer realized that life offers more than daily wrangling with the White House press corps. "Phones don't stop days a week," he laments. "And it occurred to me that something more restful, more relaxing now would be to wrestle alligators for a living."

I'm sure Fleischers's new wife, Becki, is glad her husband hasn't yet been devoured by the press-corps predators. It's time for the next human heat shield to step up to the briefing room podium. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

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