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Address To Impress

A former White House spokesman pitches his media savvy to sports world

August 31, 2004|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Ari Fleischer no longer walks the corridors of power. He works on the fifth floor of a generic office building here, across the street from Gap, Ann Taylor and California Pizza Kitchen.

As the presidential press secretary for the first two years of the Bush administration, Fleischer handled the daily briefing, delivering the White House message to a worldwide audience.

Now, after a year spent writing his memoirs and making speeches, he wants to coach.

Specifically, he wants to be a pitching coach. He believes he can help athletes, coaches, teams and leagues make their pitches to the media, teach them what to say and what not to say, advise them how to handle all those annoying questions.

He is attending this week's Republican National Convention in New York, but not in any official capacity. He is a sports fan who wants to work in sports, which makes him no different from millions of other Americans. At 43, he has spent his working life in politics, having spoken on behalf of various candidates, committees and elected officials for two decades.

Yet he considers himself highly qualified, citing what he calls the "surprisingly striking and similar" live coverage and daily scrutiny of politics and sports.

"When ... Bush lost the New Hampshire primary [in 2000], within moments of his loss, the press was asking, 'Are you going to fire [campaign strategist] Karl Rove?' When people said Dick Cheney was unpopular, at the beginning of this year, the press was asking, 'Are you going to dump Cheney from the ticket?' " Fleischer said.

"In pro football, if your team starts out 0-3, the question is going to get asked: Are you going to fire the head coach?"

Crisis management appeals to Fleischer, given his experience in crafting a message and sticking to it. He offers a suggestion for helping lift what Cal Ripken calls "the black cloud of steroids" from baseball, at a time public relations on the issue consist of little more than the union saying nothing and Commissioner Bud Selig pointing a finger at the union and saying he is helpless to tighten a drug-testing policy even he considers weak.

"I think the communication that is happening on the steroid issue has not put either the league or the players' union in the best light," Fleischer said. "They haven't presented their case in a way that makes the fans feel confident.

"This is a wonderful and rare opportunity for the union and the league to join together and show the public they mean it -- no steroids, none, zero."

The union's silence is partly the result of a difficult position in this era of sound bites. The union is opposed to steroid use but is concerned about balancing stricter testing with rights of privacy and constitutional principles regarding unreasonable search and seizure.

"I think fans want to know that the action on the field is driven by the God-given gifts of the athletes and not tinkered with because of steroids," Fleischer said. "And I think many of the players are willing to have a more stringent requirement to protect the integrity of the game. There don't have to be roadblocks. Look at the Olympics."

Union leaders bristle at any comparison to the Olympics, whose athletes must adhere to a strict drug-testing regimen adopted without representation on their behalf.

"Maybe that's an indication that there's a difference between the way the athletes themselves feel about things and some of their representatives," he said.

As a baseball fan above all, Fleischer had "the time of my life" last year, when he addressed the annual rookie career-development seminar, jointly conducted by major league owners and the players' union.

"He talked about how focused he had to be when he talked to the media," said the Angels' Chone Figgins, who was in the audience. "Some of the things, he couldn't really answer. He had to give the answer he was supposed to."

Said Fleischer: "I talked to them about what it was like when I took the field, when I crossed through the briefing room door and took the podium. I was determined to play my game and say what I was going to say....

"I said, 'What you need to do is what I do at that podium: Keep your head in the game. Why would you make the mental mistake of saying something stupid to a reporter or let a reporter bait you, because you had a bad game, into snapping? Why would you take your head out of the game in the clubhouse if you're going to keep your head in the game on the field?' "

As the nation's First Fan, and as the former owner of the Texas Rangers, Bush relished opportunities to welcome athletes and teams to the White House.

"We didn't exactly have a lot of Hollywood people traipsing through, but we sure had athletes," Fleischer said.

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