A chilly reception

In Taking Heat, former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer grumbles about a press corps unwilling to accept his statements at face value

fleishman book 88 298 (photo credit: )
fleishman book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Taking Heat: The President, the Press, and My Years in the White House By Ari Fleischer HarperCollins 381 pp., $26.95 Taking Heat, Ari Fleischer's tell-all account of his years as President George W. Bush's press secretary, opens with a seemingly sincere dedication: "To anyone who works with or talks to the press. It may not be easy, but at all times a free press helps keep our nation free." Most of the rest of this obviously one-sided and partisan book, though, does nothing to enforce Fleischer's claim of support for a free press, and, in fact, more often than not contradicts it. Fleischer's book isn't really about the Bush White House at all, or if it is, it's only in the most tangential sense. What this book is really about is Fleischer's own relationship with an often hostile and almost always cantankerous press. And where the press is concerned, it quickly becomes clear, there is little love lost between the former press secretary and the legions of media cohorts he had to deal with during his years in the White House. Fleischer makes no bones about his central thesis. The American press, he claims, has a decidedly liberal bias. He repeats this claim again and again, citing some good and strange examples, many of which seem like no more than an excuse to whine about media exchanges in which Fleischer was simply caught off guard. In one anecdote, Fleischer tries to explain that Colin Powell, then the US Secretary of State, believed that minors should practice abstinence. Rather than getting that idea across, however, he inadvertently claims that Powell himself is abstinent. Instead of taking responsibility for his error, though, Fleischer uses the podium of his book to blame it on the chicanery of the press. Fleischer, in attacking the press - and make no mistake, this book is in essence a manifesto against the press - explains that "the search for conflict, the desire to expose a problem and air it so the American people can decide which side they're on, is a vital mission of journalism. But when the mission becomes lopsided to the point that the news is mostly defined by conflict and negativity, deeper, richer truths… get lost." Fleischer may have a point there. The press, by its nature, is certainly conflict-driven. People are generally interested in divisiveness, and conflict, by its nature, sells. Promoting divisiveness is one thing, but reporting stories accurately is another thing entirely. And it is not clear from his book that Fleischer approves of either. Instead, Fleischer seems to believe he is entitled to a press that would be a mouthpiece for his views; an unchallenging and noncontentious entity that would simply repeat the party line. Fleischer's view of an ideal press, then, runs contrary to the very nature of the free press he claims to support with such zeal. Recent months and years have only reinforced the idea that a free press is not just important for democracy, but vital. Without a free press, Bush would in all likelihood still be claiming that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that Hurricane Katrina did little to affect the American and international economy. And it seems from Fleischer's partisan and myopic account that his former press secretary would be standing behind him all the way. Fleischer picks on the press on a macro level, attacking it for attacking his administration and its policies, and occasionally even for reporting them. He also has much to say about how the news is reported. He makes a big deal over the fact that the press calls liberals "progressives" - thus, in his mind, shielding the public from the nefariousness of what the liberals really stand for. In many senses of the word, however, liberals are, in fact, progressives. The two words share a similar definition - a focus on moving forward and a tolerance toward change - and have been used interchangeably for decades, if not centuries. It seems that Fleischer would rather see the word "liberal" used by the media in a manner that obfuscates what liberals really are. Saying that one is progressive (a proponent of moving forward), like saying that one is conservative (a proponent of preserving the status quo), brings one's true intent out into the open. All of this would make Fleischer's memoir bad enough. But the writing style - often at a primary school reading level - only adds to the shame that its author should feel. Here is a representative (and by no means exceptional) paragraph: "White House reporters sometimes like to grumble. When I was press secretary, they grumbled about the President, they grumbled about their own industry and its weaknesses, they grumbled about their editors, and they grumbled about Congress. Every now and then, they grumbled about me." From its didactic tone, its simple syntax, and its ceaseless repetition of single words, this reviewer often felt like he was reading less a serious book about the presidency than a school primer about Dick and Jane. Perhaps if Fleischer spent less time criticizing reporters and more time reading what they wrote, he (or his ghostwriter) could learn to write coherently and persuasively. As it is, one finishes this book feeling less that Fleischer has vindicated himself and his president and more that he has further tarnished both.