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Fleischer, the White House's 'On Message' Master, Will Resign

Bush's spokesman will leave his post in July to join the private sector, spend time with his wife.

May 20, 2003|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Ari Fleischer, the unflappable public voice of the White House, will leave his job as President Bush's press secretary in July to join the private sector and spend more time with his wife of six months.

"I never meant to be a government-for-life type," Fleischer, who has been on the federal payroll -- at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue -- for two decades, said Monday. "I love this job. I believe deeply in President Bush as a man, and I believe deeply in his policies. But ... it's a big world out there, and I'm looking forward to finding it."

Typical for the secrecy-prone Bush White House, few officials were willing to speculate about Fleischer's successor. Two who were mentioned were deputy press secretary Scott McClellan, a longtime Bush aide, and Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon's chief spokeswoman.

With the press secretary surpassed only by the president as the main communication link between the White House and the public, replacing Fleischer looms as an important decision for Bush -- especially with the 2004 campaign revving up.

Fleischer, 42, informed the president on Friday of his decision to step down -- the same day Bush formally declared his intention to run for reelection.

For now, Fleischer plans to remain in Washington to explore speaking and writing opportunities. He said he intends to eventually return to his native Westchester County, N.Y. -- a perch that will grant him a better view of his beloved New York Yankees.

As word of Fleischer's impending departure spread early Monday, many White House correspondents seemed almost giddy. Their delight was a measure of how well he served his boss. By staying relentlessly "on message," he frustrated reporters to no end -- rarely dishing up a morsel of information that was not meant to show the administration in its best light or losing his composure when parrying pointed questions.

He was Bush's primary spokesman during a series of momentous events: the disputed 2000 election, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the anthrax scare and the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.

Only on a few occasions did he commit a verbal gaffe that required correction -- most memorably when he suggested that former President Clinton's failed efforts to promote peace in the Middle East had led to increased bloodshed there.

Although buttoned-down in his public persona, Fleischer, became something of a celebrity as the White House's chief spokesman. He started working for Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign. The press secretary was the highest-ranking West Wing staffer who did not share a long history with Bush. He had begun the campaign working for one of Bush's rivals for the GOP nomination, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, now a senator from North Carolina.

Fleischer recalled Monday that, even before he informed the president of his intention to quit, Bush sensed what was coming. That was because Fleischer closed the door of the Oval Office behind him upon entering -- something he had never done. What ensued was what Fleischer called "the most warm, sweet conversation you can imagine."

During the last year, tensions occasionally surfaced between Fleischer and Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said one senior White House official. But such disagreements did not play a major role in Fleischer's decision to leave, the staffer said.

"I just think married life has really kind of mellowed him out a bit," the aide said.

Fleischer previously had served as press secretary to Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and to former Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas), once chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

From Capitol Hill, Fleischer brought to the White House a deep knowledge of policy issues, particularly on tax matters. That proved to be a significant asset, because he was able to discuss with ease the mind-numbing details of the tax-cutting proposals that have been a hallmark of Bush's domestic agenda.

Janet Leissner, Washington bureau chief for CBS News, called Fleischer, "very skilled."

"He's smooth, he doesn't get into the fray when he could, and he's pretty effective at getting his message out," she said. The Bush White House, she added, "wants to be consistent, and he was consistent for them."

But he earned his share of detractors. In 1997, when he was still on Capitol Hill, GQ magazine profiled him in an article that described him as deceptive. In June, an article in the New Republic magazine was headlined: "The Peculiar Duplicity of Ari Fleischer." It asserted that in responding to media queries, "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."

The latest incident that drew negative attention to Fleischer was his initial assertion that Bush recently had to fly in a military jet to land on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln because it was "hundreds" of miles off the coast of San Diego. As it turned out, the vessel was only about 30 miles offshore.

In an interview, Fleischer said he hopes to "get some rest," lose 10 pounds, and spend more time with his wife of "six months and 10 days."

The two met while she worked at the White House Office of Management and Budget. Today, Becki Fleischer is a Department of Education official.

Times staff writer Elizabeth Jensen in New York contributed to this report.

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