After two and a half years as the White House press secretary and more than 20 years of dealing with the political press on Capitol Hill, Fleischer has had plenty of practice dodging and guiding political spin. His first book, Taking Heat: The President, the Press, and My Years in the White House, stands as a tribute to this skill and reads like a well-written press release. If you don’t like it, you’re a Democrat, French or a disgruntled reporter with an ax to grind.
Having said that, Fleischer has interesting material to work with and Taking Heat reflects that. The book offers a window into what it was like being the White House press secretary during one of the most tumultuous periods in U.S. history.
Fleischer’s book opens with his toughest day at the White House — Sept. 14, 2001, when the president made his first visit to New York City after the Sept. 11 attacks. From there, the book winds its way chronologically through the confusion of the Florida recount, the transition into the White House, more about Sept. 11 and prewar Iraq discussions. It concludes with a thinly veiled defense of Fleischer’s crowning moment — the weapons-of-mass-destruction faux pas in which there ultimately were no weapons of mass destruction.
Fleischer walks the reader through his days. An average day, for example, started with a 5 a.m. reading of The Washington Post and The New York Times. By the time he made it to the office at 7:15 a.m., he would have already caught the network news and was ready to tackle the nation’s other papers. The goal by 7:30 was to be “armed with every bit of reporting I could find.”
Sprinkled through this step-by-step guide of his daily working life, Fleischer — who left the White House in 2003 — livens things up with personal anecdotes. Some involve interactions with the president. “I found him keenly interested in what the press were thinking,” he notes. He describes the president as “running a tight ship” and as being “crisp, conclusive and to the point.”
There is, of course, plenty of attention devoted to the White House press corps. The reporters there “are always skeptical, and sometimes cynical ... some of the smartest, toughest and most experienced reporters you’ll meet,” writes Fleischer. “They’re not the friendliest crew. They’re not paid to be friendly, however.”
His long-winded, preachy and occasionally whiny critiques of the press tend to come in the form of backhanded compliments: “White House reporters absolutely do their best to report accurately what they see and hear,” Fleischer explains. “We are a better and stronger country because every day the press ... publish[es] or air[s] thousands of facts that are true and accurate.” The gloves then come off and the rest of the chapter is devoted to what Fleischer perceives is wrong with the press — his belief that editors and reporters are covertly liberal, obsessed with controversy and overly eager to let the truth fall victim to deadlines.
All together — like the stereotypically good press secretary that he was — Taking Heat gives nothing away but tells you just enough so that you put the book down thinking you may have learned something. The glow wears off, but it’s a fitting epitaph for a man who’s made a career out of being the ideal spokesman for a virtually sequestered White House.
Q: Do you miss sparring with the White House press corps?
A: I don’t miss the sparring at all. I enjoyed it while I did it. I loved it and I have a lot of respect for reporters, and I understand how hard their job is. I also understand how important their job is. But I do think there is too much of a focus on controversy and on fighting — it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican they’re covering. And I think there is an ideological bias. Most reporters are Democrats, and I think that’s a problem and it shows up often in typically subtle ways, particularly on policy issues.
Q: What are the differences between working for people like former Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer (R-Texas) and then-presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole and the president?
A: None of it compares to life at the White House. Every word at the White House is so important. When you work for a senator, even a very senior senator, the senator is still one of a hundred. When you work in the House you work for a very influential committee chairman, potentially still one of 435. But the president’s words are watched all over the world.
Q: What was it like to deal with members of the foreign press?
A: It’s another reminder of why our system, with whatever flaws it has, is the best on earth, the press included. We would go to China and President Jiang not only had the answers written down in front of him, but he had the questions written down in front of him that he would get from the Chinese media. It was state-controlled. It’s good for foreign countries to see what America’s media is like because it’s a force for democracy, it’s a force for freedom. ... America’s media is plenty tough, but there are a lot of good aspects as well.
Q: What was it like being Jewish and working for such a Christian administration — was it ever an issue?
A: My faith is very important to me, but I just never saw it that way. When the president was asked about it, he would talk about his faith and he would talk very visibly about it. But, just as I was proud of [Sen.] Joe Lieberman [D-Conn.] for talking about his faith, I was proud of George Bush for talking about his. Non-Jews have no reason to be threatened by Joe Lieberman and non-Christians have no reason to be threatened by George W. Bush.
Q: Best White House moment?
A: March 2001, when the president invited me to play catch with him on the South Lawn to warm him up before he threw out the first pitch for the Milwaukee Brewers’ new ballpark.
Q: What do you think of the Jeff Gannon situation?
A: He started when I was there. I think we’re entering this era where it is increasingly hard to define who is and is not a reporter. It’s a slippery slope for the press secretary or anybody in the government to say who does and doesn’t belong on the basis of ideology. I draw the line if somebody works for a political party or a candidate. This is an unusually odd and probably isolated incident.