BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield, with a little trip down memory lane.
ARI FLEISCHER (archival): During the campaign, the president did not express, as you put it, "disdain for nation building." What the president, what the president said is the military should be used for the purpose of fighting and winning wars, exactly as we did in Afghanistan. And then there are other areas of the government that actively are involved, should be involved and will be involved in nation building.
BOB GARFIELD: That's former Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, playing dodgeball with the White House press corps in February, 2003, on President Bush's stunning policy reversal. Working for probably the least-accessible president in modern history was a game Fleischer had to play often. Here he is commenting on reports that President Bush had told a senator he would rescind an executive order prohibiting the assassination of foreign leaders.
ARI FLEISCHER (archival): I've looked into it. I can't confirm that he did say it.
REPORTER (archival): Did you ask him about it?
ARI FLEISCHER (archival): The president doesn't recall if he said it or didn't say it. The staff doesn't recall the president's saying it. The bottom line remains the same. The executive order is in place, and so it's a hypothetical that doesn't exist.
BOB GARFIELD: In his new book, Taking Heat, Fleischer by no means offers vicious Ann Coulter-ish cheap shots against the media, but he does voice his own frustrations. Fleischer's bottom line on that - the White House press corps, he says, has two fundamental biases.
ARI FLEISCHER: The first being that the press is biased in favor of conflict, whether they're covering a Democrat or a Republican, and secondarily, I do believe that there is a subtle ideological bias in the press where it's just easier to be a Democrat talking to the press about policies and especially social policies than it is to be a Republican. Make no mistake, the press is plenty tough on everyone. They were relentless on their coverage of President Clinton and his ethics. But I do think when it comes to policy and social policy, the press largely sees things through the eyes of the Democrats, and it shows up in subtle ways.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, let's just put liberalness aside for a moment and talk about the conflict part of that. I know you don't imagine that the press is a transcription service. I mean isn't the whole point to shine the light on the corridors of power and hold the government accountable to the people? Isn't it inherently a conflict situation? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
ARI FLEISCHER: It absolu-- Yes, the press has and will forever have an ongoing obligation to shine that light, regardless of who is in power, and I have confidence they'll do that. But I also wish I had confidence that the press would shine a light on the good things that happen in government. The press focuses on what's wrong. The government then defensively focuses on what's right, and the two good institutions talk past each other.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, hasn't the press earned its right to not pay a whole lot of attention to what the administration - whatever administration it is - represents as being the good news? Let's talk about the Pentagon Papers and Watergate and Iran-Contra and Monica-Gate - it's the history of the sitting administration lying to the people and the press. If you were on the other side of the podium for those two and a half years, wouldn't you have been a little on the skeptical side yourself?
ARI FLEISCHER: And everything in my book supports the notion that reporters will continue to be and should continue to be skeptical. But that doesn't mean that they should abandon their mission of also telling the American people what is right. Take Iraq, for instance. I think it wasn't until the election that really people started to focus on is it possible that good things could happen in Iraq.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about weapons of mass destruction. You had to stand there, day after day, and speak of their existence with certainty.
ARI FLEISCHER: That's correct.
BOB GARFIELD: How do you feel about that now?
ARI FLEISCHER: Well, it looks like - it doesn't look like, from - according to the weapons inspectors - I was wrong. And nobody ever likes being put in the position where they say something that turns out to be wrong. But you have to make a distinction between was I wrong because, as the president's critics said, I lied or the president lied, or was I wrong because the information turned out to be incorrect, as we later found out. When George Tenet says to the president, "It's a slam dunk," Saddam Hussein has biological and has chemical weapons - the same conclusion that Bill Clinton reached and Al Gore reached - then I think you have to say were the president's decisions justified on the basis of that information or not? And that is what he was told.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to pull back a little bit and ask you about the difficult position that a press secretary is placed in. Now, you obviously don't want to be standing there, getting caught in a lie, but there's truth, Ari, and there's the whole truth. In court, you have to put your hand on a Bible and swear to tell the whole truth. Could you have done that before your daily press briefings?
ARI FLEISCHER: Absolutely. I don't know why there should be a presumption not to. Well, let me make a very important caveat to that - there are truths that I never discussed with the press, of course. And no press secretary has discussed the whole truth about things. For example, I was asked if the United States would use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan. Now, should I answer that question? Or, when the president submits a proposal to the Congress, like in 2001, 1.6 trillion dollar tax cut - and people on the hill are saying it's way too big - we'll only support it if it's 600 million - no higher than that. And then reporters come to me and said will the president accept, you know, 1.2 trillion? Is that a reasonable compromise? Now should I answer that question also? There are all kinds of ways press secretaries don't answer questions and press secretaries duck questions. Does that mean I'm not providing the whole truth, and therefore I am being less than truthful? Of course not. It means that there are some questions that cannot and should not be answered, and no press secretary should answer them, and I wouldn't.
BOB GARFIELD: No, I, I can see that, but of course what I'm getting at is when not answering the questions is a way to save your president from political heat, which may be deserved.
ARI FLEISCHER: Well, like the question to the president at a news conference of "Tell me a mistake you made," and he wouldn't answer that one. He couldn't think of one. But here's what would have happened if he answered the question: within 12 hours, a commercial would have been on the air from the opposite campaign, saying "Bush admits this mistake on Iraq," and then the commercial's tag line would have been "If even Bush says he's wrong - we can do better." Something along those lines. And then there'd be countless stories following it. Not everything happens in a vacuum.
BOB GARFIELD: So there's actually - you're making my point for me. Politics and the truth are essentially incompatible, and right in the middle of that, there's Ari Fleischer at the podium, trying to broker the truth.
ARI FLEISCHER: Well, how, how do you get to politics and the truth are incompatible from that? No, of course they're compatible. But there's also an exercise in our democracy where reporters want to write the next big story - they want to get ahead of the news to the next development. That's their training. That's their instinct. And it's what reporters should do. But there's also the serious business of government which sometimes is best conducted in quiet, in a deliberative fashion, and that's going to forever be tension between the press and the government, regardless of who's in power.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Ari, thanks very much.
ARI FLEISCHER: All right, Bob. My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Former presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer is the author of Taking Heat.