DATE August 21, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Marlin Fitzwater discusses his term as press secretary
for President George H.W. Bush
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
This week, in advance of the conventions, we're featuring interviews about
presidential history and politics. Today we're going to hear from four former
press secretaries. Together, they represented each president from Ronald
Reagan to George W. Bush. We'll hear stories of spinning, stonewalling,
denying and passing out information that turned out to be false.
Up first, Marlin Fitzwater. He says that while serving as press secretary to
Presidents Reagan and Bush, he developed three rules: cave early and often,
grovel if you have to and you can run and hide. I spoke to him in 1995 after
the publication of his memoir "Call the Briefing!," in which he described what
it's like to stand between the opposing forces of the president and the press
corps. He was in that tight spot during momentous events like the Iran-Contra
hearings and the Gulf War and for less historic occasions like when President
George H.W. Bush threw up in the lap of the Japanese prime minister.
Fitzwater says he thought of his daily White House briefings as psychological
Mr. MARLIN FITZWATER: I used to plan for the press briefing for two or three
hours every day, and a big part of that planning was to sit down with my staff
and say, `OK, what's the mood of the press corps? Give me a feedback. I want
you to circulate among them, find out, you know, who had a bad night, who's
getting a divorce, who's angry with the president, who thinks we're nuts to be
doing this.' And so that by the time I go out there at 11:00, I want to know
what these people are thinking, what their attitudes are and where they're
coming from. And, as it turns out, the press is back in the back of the room
doing the same thing about me. They're asking each other, you know, `Is
Marlin in a good mood today? Is this going to be a contentious kind of
briefing or is it going to be fun? Do we have a lot of issues to deal with or
only one?' And so there's a very psychological battle that goes on, and both
sides get ready for it.
GROSS: Now, you didn't allow your press briefings to be recorded for
broadcast. Why not?
Mr. FITZWATER: Well, mainly because if I said something stupid, I didn't
want it repeated every 15 minutes on camera. And, I mean, that's the honest
reason. The more institutional reason is that I felt it gave me the freedom
to answer questions a little more fully if I didn't have to worry about how it
appeared on television. Because on TV you have to maintain a certain presence
and dignity, whereas there were times where I wanted to argue with the press
corps. I wanted to convince them we were right. And that didn't always call
for a good television picture.
GROSS: Now, as press secretary, you sometimes have to cover up for
presidential gaffes. In fact, in your memoir you reprint a funny cartoon that
has President Reagan saying, `Two plus two equals five.' And then it has you
saying, `What the president really meant was...'
Mr. FITZWATER: Yes. The press is always eager to get you to amplify on the
president's words or at least to acknowledge that he didn't quite know what he
was saying. And after President Reagan's speeches, the press would always
say, `Did the president really mean to say that this is the way the country
was going?' And finally, I just got around to saying, `The president said what
he meant and meant what he said,' and try to let it go at that. But there's
always a kind of a second-day examination of everything the president said.
GROSS: Well, what is one of the gaffes you did have to cover up for?
Mr. FITZWATER: Well, I don't know. I suppose maybe the most famous one with
President Reagan, which actually Larry Speakes was press secretary then, I was
his deputy; but when President Reagan did a radio broadcast from Santa Barbara
and joked before the broadcast about, `Look out, Russia. The bombs are coming
in five minutes.' And the whole government was having to cover up for that
one. We had to call the allies and tell them there wasn't any bombing
happening. We had to call Russia and say, `We're just kidding, folks.' We had
to tell the press corps the president was just joking. And it took us several
days to get through that one.
GROSS: After President Bush raised taxes in spite of his `Read my lips: no
new taxes,' you had to answer to that, too. How did you deal with that?
Mr. FITZWATER: Well, it was a very disastrous decision for the president
politically because it was interpreted by the American people as `the
president broke his pledge that he had made at the time of the convention.' So
it was a difficult issue to describe. Plus, our people in the White House
never really faced up to kind of what the impact of that decision in terms of
the president's pledge. And I think had we gone out right afterwards and
said, `Look, this is a matter of conscience, and President Bush is trying to
really do what Ronald Reagan said still needed to be done. We cut taxes. We
made a strong defense, but we've got a huge deficit that's got to be reduced.'
But instead, we never really got around to saying that very strongly, and that
was a poor job, I think, on my part and everybody's part.
GROSS: Now, after President Bush raised taxes, didn't you have to participate
in calling those taxes `revenue enhancers'...
Mr. FITZWATER: Well, the fellows in...
GROSS: ...to get around to saying, `Yes, these are really taxes'?
Mr. FITZWATER: Well, we didn't have to do that very long because the press
took one look at the revenue enhancement language and within two nanoseconds
understood it was a tax increase and we'd broken the pledge.
GROSS: Was this your idea to use this euphemistic phrasing?
Mr. FITZWATER: No. This was the phrasing that was worked out by the budget
negotiators themselves, including the president and a senior team on our side,
and on the Democratic side was George Mitchell and Foley and Gephardt and
others. And they worked out this language. And the minute I saw it, I said
to our chief of staff, you know, `This is not going to fly.' But they said,
`Look, we negotiated this. Go do it.' And sure enough, it didn't fly two
GROSS: What's it like for you when you have to say something that you don't
really believe in?
Mr. FITZWATER: Well, you have to do it intellectually. I mean, there were
two or three major issues that were central to the policies of President
Reagan and President Bush that I did disagree with personally. And I took
some pride in the idea that, after 10 years, there really was nobody in the
press corps who could identify those issues because I had to argue them all
intellectually. When you have no heart in it, you have no emotion in it, but
yet you have to make the case for the president the best way you can if you're
a professional spokesman.
GROSS: Would you care to say what those issues were that you disagreed on?
Mr. FITZWATER: I'd rather not. But they were major social issues of some
prominence, and litmus test issues, really, for President Reagan and President
GROSS: Now, you sometimes had to do damage control on yourself. You
sometimes said the wrong thing at a briefing, and one example is when you
called Gorbachev a drugstore cowboy.
Mr. FITZWATER: Yeah. I think that was the worst, really, of my tenure.
GROSS: What did you mean by that? I mean, I think of--I saw the movie
"Drugstore Cowboy," and in that it's people who rob drugstores to steal
prescriptions drugs so that they could get high by them. What did you mean by
Mr. FITZWATER: You saw a pretty updated version from what I was talking
about, I'll tell you. No, but we were looking for a way to describe the
Soviet Union in 1989 because they were--Gorbachev kept making speeches of
promising arms control reductions of various kinds. He said, `I'll reduce my
conventional forces in the Eastern bloc countries. I'll reduce nuclear
warheads by one-third.' And he was promising all these things, but he never
submitted a concrete plan to our negotiators to get to work on. And we were
trying to find a way to kind of smoke him out. And so I looked it up in the
dictionary and it said, `A drugstore cowboy is one who makes promises he
doesn't keep.' And I thought, `That's perfect. That's exactly what I want to
say.' And I read it to my staff and I said, `How about this? I'm going to
say, "They throw out these arms control proposals like a drugstore cowboy."'
And my staff said, `Don't do it, Marlin. That's terrible. That's the dumbest
thing we ever heard.' But I was convinced it's right and the opportunity
presented itself and I did it.
And the minute I did it I knew I was in trouble. I mean, the press laughed
and groaned, you know, like they do when you tell a bad joke because they knew
they had me. And I had miscalculated, frankly, how personal that term is.
And the press shortened it immediately to, `Fitzwater calls Gorbachev a
drugstore cowboy.' When in fact, I'd said that he throws out arms control
proposals like a drugstore cowboy. And I should have known that, I of all
GROSS: What would you say were the main differences between working as press
secretary for President Reagan and President Bush?
Mr. FITZWATER: Well, mainly their personal characteristics and how they
chose to govern. The similarities were that they're both men of great dignity
and honor and integrity and wonderful to work for. They were not shouters or
screamers. They treated everybody with kindness and in essence they were just
terrific. The difference was that President Reagan liked his briefings in
writing. If he had a decision to make, he'd want you to write it up, write
down the options, give him the best arguments. He'd go home. He'd think
about it. He'd come in the next morning with a check mark and say, `That's
it.' And the result was that I could read the same briefing papers he read and
I knew what he knew. I knew what his decisions were based on and what went
into them. So I could be with President Reagan maybe 20 percent of the time
during a day and know 80 or 90 percent of what he was doing and thinking.
With President Bush, he liked oral presentations. He would bring people into
his office and they would discuss an issue and he'd decide on the spot: `OK,
let's do this. Let's do that. Here's what I want to do.' And so that I had
to spend maybe 80 percent of my day with President Bush just to know what he
was doing and thinking. So from a press secretary standpoint, it was a lot
more time consuming and difficult to keep track of President Bush's
GROSS: What was it like to prepare President Reagan for his press briefings,
for his press conferences? How would you prepare him?
Mr. FITZWATER: Well, President Reagan had 48 press conferences in eight
years, as opposed to President Bush, who had 280 press conferences in four
years. But they were different kinds of press conferences. And President
Reagan liked the kind that utilized the abilities that he had as an actor and
that he had learned in years before in terms of staging and presence and so
forth. He liked the big, formal press conferences in the East Room. And he
didn't like to do them more than about once every couple of months or so. So
usually by the time he did a press conference, there were a lot of issues to
catch up on. And we would have formal rehearsals the night before our press
conference, where we would fire questions at President Reagan so that he would
hear them in advance, he could practice his answers. And he concentrated on
his answers almost like an actor does with a script, almost like they were
memorized. And you could see it as soon as he felt he got it right, he kind
of pushed an inner button someplace and that memory was locked away, and sure
enough, the next night at the press conference it would come back in the same
GROSS: Is there a moment of your period as press secretary for Presidents
Reagan and Bush that you would most like to do over again and get it right,
something you blew that you wish you could do over?
Mr. FITZWATER: Well, I'd like to do two events over. I'd like to do the
drugstore cowboy over that we've talked about.
Mr. FITZWATER: And there was an event during the campaign when I was totally
frustrated and tired. We'd been 10 points behind for four months. We weren't
getting any closer and everything was going wrong. And I couldn't get the
press to come outside and see this great rally with 20,000 Oklahoma people
shouting about how great President Bush was and the press was just kind of
sitting back in the auditorium listening to it on the speaker. And I went in
and I said, `You lazy bastards. Get out here and cover that event.'
Mr. FITZWATER: And I've regretted that ever since.
GROSS: How was that comment received by the press?
Mr. FITZWATER: It was not received with great equanimity, no. They were not
very happy about it. And worst of all I ruined the whole day for the
president because all the stories were about Fitzwater's explosion, Fitzwater
reflects the frustration of the campaign, everything's going wrong. And I
felt so sorry for President Bush. We had to go to three cities that day, and
he had to go through all these speeches and all these handshakes and motions
knowing he would get no press out of it because it was all going to focus on
my mistake. And that was really a horrible feeling for a press secretary to
GROSS: Marlin Fitzwater, recorded in 1995.
Coming up, Joe Lockhart talks about serving as President Clinton's press
secretary. This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Joe Lockart discusses his term as press secretary for
President Bill Clinton
TERRY GROSS, host:
Today we're featuring interviews with former White House press secretaries.
Joe Lockhart was President Clinton's press secretary from October of '98 to
October 2000. He took over from Mike McCurry just in time for a White House
nightmare, the impeachment. In addition to the impeachment, Lockhart handled
such stories as the bombing of Kosovo and the custody battle for Elian
Gonzalez. I spoke to Lockhart in January 2001, right after President Clinton
left office and asked him to describe what happened the day he took over as
Mr. JOE LOCKHART: The day I took over, it turned out to be the first day of
the official impeachment. It was the day the House Judiciary Committee held
their first formal hearing on the subject. So in addition to going up and
standing in front of the cameras at the White House with a somewhat hostile
press corp, there was actually an important piece of news that day. So, I
mean, I like to describe my first briefing as an out-of-body experience
because, through most of it, I felt like I was standing four feet to my side,
watching me screw it up. But, you know, as with anything, after you do it a
couple times, you get a little more comfortable. And I think we all at the
White House got more comfortable in that fight as it proceeded because, you
know, I think we knew that the public was generally on our side, that the
Republican leadership was pushing things too far and too hard.
GROSS: Looking back, do you think you did screw up during that first press
Mr. LOCKHART: Oh, probably not. I mean, the president said to me some
months later, and I took it as a compliment, something along the lines of,
`You know, it's really nice that you've lost that deer-in-the-headlights
look.' And, you know, so I think there was an element of that. There was an
element of sort of establishing my own credential with the press corps to be
able to speak authoritatively for the president. And all of those things are
natural for anyone coming in new. This was just accentuated a little
bit--well, actually, not a little bit, a lot--by the fact that we were
beginning the formal impeachment proceedings.
GROSS: Is there an example of a statement you made or the way you handled a
turn in the impeachment story that you think was particularly effective in
framing the story?
Mr. LOCKHART: Well, I'll give you one that may seem trivial, but to me it
was an important one, and this was near the end where, you know, I think we'd
beaten back the charge of impeachment, and it looked like it was finally going
to die under its own weight in the Senate. And immediately there was a
groundswell of concern and stories about, `Well, will the White House be
doing, you know, a celebratory dance and will they gloat?' And, you know, I
heard this for two days in a row from the reporters and just, you know, out of
nowhere, just decided and said and unilaterally declared that post-impeachment
the White House would be a gloat-free zone. And I, you know, sort of took
some heat for that from inside about being so glib.
But it, actually, like many things here in town, it's not what happens, it's
the lead up and the anticipation that sort of took the issue off the table. I
mean, that's a small sort of anecdotal--I think, to answer the larger
question, you know, every single day of the impeachment battle, I felt my
challenge was to frame this as a political power issue, that the Republicans
were doing this because they had political differences with the president and
were exercising their political power. And I think, by and large, that is the
way the majority of the public ultimately viewed this.
GROSS: Well, shortly after the impeachment, you had to handle the story of
the bombing in Kosovo.
Mr. LOCKHART: Yeah. You know, people ask me what was the hardest thing that
I had to do during my tenure as White House press secretary. And I think they
don't believe me when I say it wasn't impeachment. And I think they think I'm
just trying to put it on something that ended better or was more favorable for
the president. But it really wasn't impeachment, because impeachment was a
raw political battle which, from a communications point of view, we were in a
pretty good position to fight. Kosovo was much more difficult. You know,
this was something that was very important, most of us felt very strongly that
it was the right thing to do, and we did a miserable job initially of
convincing people that what we were doing was right and that it was going to
And there was a lot of reasons for that. One is that this wasn't like the
Gulf War, where you had the ability to show what you were doing. We were
doing this in a place where Milosevic had control of state television there,
had control of all the pictures, so really could dictate the story line out of
We had a, you know, really unprecedented political environment here in
Washington where, even before we started, there was not the general bipartisan
support for a military action. There was partisan sniping that started, you
know, even before we started. And there was, within the military, people who
did not believe that an air campaign alone would work. They argued that
strongly internally, and many of them argued it anonymously and just as
strongly in the newspapers externally. So there was a real challenge there,
and very frustrating because we knew what we were doing was right. We were
reasonably certain what we were doing would work. But almost from the moment
that it started, it faced very deep skepticism.
GROSS: You would often joke with the press at briefings. Did any of your
jokes ever get you into trouble?
Mr. LOCKHART: Occasionally. You know, I made a joke--one of the first
things I did after I was announced as new press secretary is I missed a
flight. And I made a joke about it at the expense of the president. And, you
GROSS: What'd you say?
Mr. LOCKHART: Oh, it was during the period where he had said something quite
serious about, you know, trying to make up for the damage he had done to his
family during this period. And I sort of used those words to talk about, you
know, the damage I had done in missing the plane, something that the reporters
all thought was hilarious. I don't think that the president thought it was
that funny. But, you know, it's a fine line. You know, humor is probably, if
not the best, one of the best weapons you can use in sort of disarming an
aggressive press corps. It's particularly useful if you can do it at your own
expense rather than someone else's expense. But there are times when, you
know, in trying to loosen things up, that you go a little bit over the line
and, you know, you generally have to pay for those.
GROSS: One last question: Because the press secretary now is on TV all the
time, holding briefings, you become something of a celebrity yourself. And
I'm wondering when strangers meet you in the street and recognize you, what
are the one or two things that they most often say to you about yourself or
about the president?
Mr. LOCKHART: The odd thing is that most people who you come up to in the
street think they know you but don't know why they know you. They think that
you went to high school or college with them, and a lot of them are very
surprised when you tell them, you know, `Well, this is why you know me.' The
ones that do recognize you, generally 95 percent of them are self-selected
positive people who will tell you they enjoyed your work or they loved the
president. There's very few people who come up and are nasty. But I think
the overwhelming response over the last year, at least, or the overwhelming
question is--and no matter where I am in the country, I get this--is, `What do
you think of C.J. and is "West Wing" realistic?' And luckily, I guess, for
C.J. and "West Wing," I think she's great and I like the show.
GROSS: Joe Lockhart served as President Clinton's press secretary. I spoke
with him in January 2001. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Ari Fleischer discusses his book "Taking Heat"
about his years as White House press secretary for President Bush
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, as part of our series of
interviews on presidential history and politics, we're featuring interviews
with former White House press secretaries.
As press secretary during President Bush's first two and a half years in
office, Ari Fleischer had to respond to the press after the 9/11 attacks and
in the lead up and early days of the Gulf War. I spoke with him in 2005,
after the publication of his memoir "Taking Heat."
I bet when you took the job as White House press secretary, you weren't
expecting to become a wartime press secretary. Where were you when you first
heard on September 11th that the first plane had crashed into the tower of the
World Trade Center?
Mr. ARI FLEISCHER: I was with the president. I traveled with him just about
everywhere he went, and so I was in the motorcade. We were just getting out
of a school, out of the motorcade to go to a school event in Sarasota,
Florida, and I was literally about six cars, five cars behind the president's
limo, and I got a page telling me the first tower had been hit.
GROSS: How did you hear about the second plane?
Mr. FLEISCHER: Second plane I got another page halfway through that event
where the president was participating in a reading event with little children,
and it said the second tower's been hit. I knew instantly that it had to be
terrorism, and moments later Andy Card walked into the room--I was about 10
feet on the left of the president--Andy Card walked into the room and
whispered in the president's ear that, `The second tower has been hit.
America's under attack.'
GROSS: So many Americans are surprised, confused by the fact that the
president stayed in his chair...
Mr. FLEISCHER: Right.
GROSS: ...and kept listening to the children read after hearing America was
under attack. What you did actually was write a sign and hold it up to the
Mr. FLEISCHER: Correct.
GROSS: What did the sign say?
Mr. FLEISCHER: I wrote a sign on the back of a note pad that said, `Don't
say anything yet,' because I thought, until the president can get a proper
briefing, he should not say what he was planning on saying before, because now
this is not an accident, this must be terrorism, and the first words that the
American people get from the president shouldn't be something where he is not
yet armed with information. Nothing would have changed if he did bolt from
his chair and leave, other than if he had gotten off of that chair looking
scared or spooked, I think it would have scared and spooked the nation. He
remained calm, left the room. Now. in those seven minutes, it allowed people
to figure out what was happening to the best degree we could, but still no one
knew about the other two aircraft, or if they did, no one had passed that on
to anybody who was in a position to pass it on to the president. And so still
we thought it was those two aircraft, those two aircraft only.
So even seven minutes later we're in the holding room right next to the little
school room, classroom, and the president's working the phones, Andy Card is
working the phones, and an official from the National Security Council who
always traveled with us is working the phones trying to figure out what's
going on. Not a word about the other two aircraft, not a word about them
being hijacked. I don't know off the top of my head if they had been hijacked
yet at that very moment. And then the president made a decision that we were
going to leave to go back to Washington.
He left then to go address a larger group that he was supposed to give a big
speech to, and said in a speech that several people said he looked nervous,
and he said in that speech that he was going to leave, return to Washington,
the nation's been attacked, and you hear a lot of shock in the room. People
didn't know it, and that point we headed back into the motorcade to go to Air
Force One, presumably for Washington at that moment.
GROSS: But is what you're saying that the president was basically irrelevant
in the first few minutes after the second attack, that the president could
afford to not be in the loop? That other people were working the phones and
the president didn't matter, he could just stay listening? I mean...
Mr. FLEISCHER: Well, no, actually the president, too, was working the
phones, if I didn't say that. I'm just saying that...
GROSS: Well, no, not during the minutes he was in the chair, which is the
minutes we're talking about.
Mr. FLEISCHER: Well, clearly not the minutes that he was in the chair...
Mr. FLEISCHER: ...but keep in mind, also, the president is not the finder of
facts. The finders of facts are more along--lines, I'd put it, the colonels
and lieutenant colonels who work at the National Security Council and at the
Department of Defense or the Federal Aviation Administration. Those are the
people who are on the front lines who are in communication with what's
happening on the ground, and that information then filters up to the president
through either his national security adviser, Andy Card, or wherever it comes
GROSS: During the lead up of the invasion of Iraq, you were asked a lot about
weapons of mass destruction...
Mr. FLEISCHER: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and one of the things you said, March 21st, 2003, `Well, there is
no question that we have evidence and information that Iraq has weapons of
mass destruction, biological and chemical. All this will be made clear in the
course of the operation, for whatever duration it takes.' Do you feel that you
participated in what some critics have called the hyping of weapons of mass
Mr. FLEISCHER: Absolutely not.
GROSS: ...to generate more support for going into Iraq?
Mr. FLEISCHER: Absolutely not. I accurate--the job of the press secretary
is to faithfully articulate what the government is doing and why it's doing it
at the time it's doing it, and all you can do is work off of the best
information available at the time, and that is loyally what I did. I
articulated accurately what we thought and what we knew at the time. Now, I
wish we could figure out what went wrong. Why were we wrong, and what does it
say about Iran and North Korea? Are we overestimating or underestimating
those nations? That, to me, is the lesson that has to be learned from the
mistakes we made.
GROSS: The White House press corps, many of the members of the White House
press corps have been very critical of the Bush administration's tight control
over information and its steadfastness in staying on point, on message. A
couple of quotes. David Gregory of NBC, "My biggest frustration is that this
White House has chosen an approach with the White House press corps, generally
speaking, to engage us as little as possible." Elisabeth Bumiller of The New
York Times, "Too often they treat us with contempt. In comparison, the Reagan
administration coddled us. This crowd has a wall up. They never get off
their talking points." Legitimate complaints?
Mr. FLEISCHER: Well, I don't think so. I think what really--there is
frustration in the press about the way the Bush administration deals with the
press. But I think most of it stems from the fact that the press, again, are
trained to break the next big story, and that they break the news first before
the president does. The president said to me and to others in the White
House, he thinks his job is to make the news, and he doesn't want to read
about it in the newspapers or see it on TV before he himself publicly says it.
This president is surrounded by people who don't go out of a closed meeting,
give reporters tips and say, `Here's what the president is about to do in two
hours. I'm going to do you a favor. I'm going to give it to you.' We try to
treat all the press the same way, treat them fair, make the news at the same
time. And the president is the one who wants to make the news, and that can
be frustrating for reporters.
GROSS: Well, I think they also want more than the official press release.
They want to know what people are really saying and thinking and what's going
on, and I think the complaint here was that the control of information is
Mr. FLEISCHER: But I think they still get that. I mean, everybody knew that
Colin Powell initially had objections about the war in Iraq. That really came
through. People saw on the Arab-Israeli matters that state had a different
view than perhaps the vice president and others. It still gets out there.
The 20 years I've been in business, reporters have always had levels of
complaints about government and government information. In fact, in President
Bush's father's administration, nobody could keep any news quiet. Everything
was given to the press. One faction would fight against another faction, and
the press absolutely loved it. That's how they get a lot of good insider
tips. And then they write stories that said, `White House in disarray.'
You don't get any stories about a White House that say, `White House in
array,' but instead you get the flip side of it is `the White House is
secretive,' and I think it's part of the thesis of my book that the press is
always going to find something to cover that's conflict oriented, but they are
seldom to give praise.
GROSS: You know how President Bush sometimes misspeaks a little bit and...
Mr. FLEISCHER: I've noticed.
GROSS: Right. One of those, I think, was about--I'm not going to remember
the quote offhand--but in talking about how he needs to, like, hug the widows
and hug the family, he made a little bit of a gaffe in the way he said it. I
don't know if you remember this quote, and I wish I had a better memory and
could quote it to you, but I was wondering if it becomes your job on occasions
where there is a little bit of a gaffe to fix it?
Mr. FLEISCHER: Oh, sure. Yeah, in fact, I remember once--this was on June
of 2003 and the president was in the Roosevelt Room and he was asked a
question--this is the aftermath of the war and now the guerrilla attacks and
the frequency of their soldiers dying started to increase. And he was asked a
question about all the attacks on our troops, and he said, `My message to
those who want to attack or troops is bring it on.' And as we walked back into
the Oval Office, I said to him, `Mr. President, think of how that sounds to a
mother who's got a child fighting for us over there. I mean, "bring it on"?'
And he said to me that all he meant to say was he has so much faith in our
military, that if anybody wants to attack us, that bring it on, our military
is the best, and anybody who attacks us is probably going to lose their life.
I said, `But it didn't come across that way, sir.' And I think he got it and
got it instantly.
My job was to say to the president--it was easy to do--`Mr. President, I
would do it this way or that way,' and to help correct him in private. It
didn't mean that I would go out to the press and say, `Boy, did he screw up.
Let me tell you what he just did.' Sometimes a good adviser is a good adviser
on the inside, and a good president is a president who will listen.
GROSS: So how do you like life outside of the White House now? Do you watch
the White House briefings every day?
Mr. FLEISCHER: You know, I read them every day, but I think I've only
watched one or two of Scott's briefings, but I read his briefings every day.
GROSS: Not your favorite television show?
Mr. FLEISCHER: Well, I remember the day after I left the White House, I was
on a treadmill, working out in the middle of the afternoon, getting back into
shape, and Scott's briefing came on TV, and my first reaction was, `Whoo, I
wouldn't want to be in that guy's shoes.'
GROSS: Air Fleischer, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. FLEISCHER: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Ari Fleischer recorded in 2005.
Coming up, Scott McClellan talks about his experiences as President Bush's
White House press secretary. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Scott McClellan, author of "What Happened," on the book
and the reaction from Washington
TERRY GROSS, host:
We conclude our series of interviews with former White House press secretaries
with Scott McClellan. Last spring he published a memoir that was critical of
the Bush administration and what McClellan describes as Washington's "culture
of deception." McClellan describes himself as someone who had been a Texas
loyalist, a trusted member of the president's senior-most team of advisors.
He first worked for Bush in 1999 as his gubernatorial spokesman. He was a
traveling press secretary for the Bush/Cheney 2000 campaign, and during
President Bush's first term was chief deputy to press secretary Ari Fleischer.
He served as President Bush's press secretary from July 2003 through May 2006.
I spoke with McClellan in June when his memoir was published.
Now, one of the things you write about in the book is how the White House
would enlist the help of conservative talk show hosts and other, quote,
"friends in the media," conservative columnists, talk radio personalities, and
they'd be given communications packets with comprehensive talking points. How
does that work?
Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN: That's right. No, I mean, you pretty much just summed
it up. We had a massive operation in the White House, massive political
operation. It was not new. It certainly existed before us. I think to some
extent we took it to new lengths, and Karl Rove, of course being the senior
adviser. But everything was well coordinated amongst some of the political
operation in the Office of Strategic Initiatives, for example, as well as the
White House communications operation. And when we need to get information
out, we've got a whole long list of conservative allies and friends, whether
it's talk radio, whether it's columnists in the newspapers. And it's all part
of that effort to shape the media narrative to our advantage.
GROSS: I'd like to play one or two of the more dramatic moments of your press
conferences and talk about what was happening in your mind or behind the
scenes at this time. And this was, I think, a particularly uncomfortable
press briefing for you. You had been telling the press that Karl Rove and
Scooter Libby assured you that they had nothing to do with leaking Valerie
Plame Wilson's name and that she was a CIA operative. Then the story broke
that Rove did talk about her with at least one reporter. The reporters at the
press briefing were asking you about that, and you refused to comment, saying
you couldn't comment on an ongoing investigation. And then the reporters were
saying, `Well, why couldn't you comment on it now when you seemed free to
comment on it earlier,' when what you were saying was no, they didn't know
Mr. McCLELLAN: Right.
GROSS: So here's David Gregory questioning you July 11th, 2005.
(Soundbite of press conference)
Mr. DAVID GREGORY: Scott, can I ask you this? Did Karl Rove commit a crime?
Mr. McCLELLAN: Again, David, this is a question relating to an ongoing
investigation, and you have my response related to the investigation, and I
don't think you should read anything into it other than we're going to
continue not to comment on it while it's ongoing.
Mr. GREGORY: Do you stand by your statement from the fall of 2003 when you
were asked specifically about Karl and Eliott Abrams and Scooter Libby, and
you said, `I've gone to each of those gentlemen, and they have told me they
are not involved in this.' Do you stand by that statement?
Mr. McCLELLAN: And if you will recall, I said that, as part of helping the
investigators move forward on the investigation, we're not going to get into
commenting on it. That was something I stated back near that time as well.
Mr. GREGORY: Scott, I mean, just--I mean, this is ridiculous, the notion
that you're going to stand before us after having commented with that level of
detail and tell people watching this that somehow you've decided not to talk?
You've got a public record out there. Do you stand by your remarks from that
podium or not?
Mr. McCLELLAN: And again, David, I'm well aware, like you, of what was
previously said. And I will be glad to talk about it at the appropriate time.
The appropriate time is when the investigation...
Mr. GREGORY: When do you say when it's appropriate and when it's
Mr. McCLELLAN: If you'll let me finish.
Mr. GREGORY: No, you're not finishing. You're not saying anything. You
stood at that podium and said that Karl Rove was not involved, and now we find
out that he spoke about--that--Joseph Wilson's wife. So don't you owe the
American public a fuller explanation? Was he involved or was he not? Because
contrary to what you told the American people, he did indeed talk about his
wife, didn't he?
Mr. McCLELLAN: David, there will be a time to talk about this, but now is
not the time to talk about it.
Mr. GREGORY: You think people will accept that, what you're saying today?
Mr. McCLELLAN: Again, I've responded to the question.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: OK, that was my guest Scott McClellan with David Gregory of NBC at a
White House press briefing, July 11th, 2005.
Scott McClellan, so why couldn't you comment then?
Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, the short answer is that the White House counsel's
office tied my hands, as they did anyone that was speaking publicly at the
White House. They said, `We're not going to talk about this. This is an
ongoing legal proceeding, and you can't talk about it.' I actually--back at
that--shortly after that time, or even around that time, I told White House
reporters that someday I looked forward to talking about this, and I think
they came to realize that I was very sincere in that.
That was an extremely difficult period because I could not defend what I had
previously said about two years earlier. I did tell reporters two years prior
to that that Scooter Libby and Karl Rove had both assured me that they were
not involved in the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity. It's interesting how
that came about. Part of that was conversations with Karl Rove. Karl Rove
had also told the president he was not involved, and the president and I had a
discussion about that.
And then about a week later after the investigation broke, the president and
vice president spoke and directed me to exonerate Scooter Libby in addition to
Karl because his name was coming up in some of the conversation in some of the
Washington rumor mill. And I said, `The only way I will do that,' told the
chief of staff Andy Card, `The only way I will do that is if Scooter Libby
gives me the same assurances that Karl Rove did.' And so I got Scooter on the
phone--he was traveling with the vice president then--and asked him exactly
what I asked Karl, `Were you involved in this, the leaking of Valerie Plame's
identity, in any way?' And he said, `No, absolutely not.' Karl had given me
the same assurances, unequivocal, `No, we were not involved.'
And there's nothing more important for the press secretary than his
credibility. And what the press secretary says has to be based on what he
believes to be true, and it was back then. But then when it is found out that
it's not true and you can't correct the record, that makes it extremely
difficult to continue in that position. And over time, it would eventually be
a chief reason why I left the White House.
That really set in this period of disillusionment in me because I was, rightly
as David did, battered for not being able to--or for not going into this `no
comment' mode. It's a terrible position to be in for--`No comment' is just a
terrible communications strategy. You've got to be able to explain things and
set the record straight when needed, particularly if something you said
previously later turns out not to be the case.
GROSS: I want to play another White House press briefing clip. And this is
from October 13th, 2005, and here it's Helen Thomas who is asking you the
questions. And this was about the war in Iraq.
(Soundbite of press conference)
Ms. HELEN THOMAS: What did the president mean by total victory, that we'll
never leave Iraq until we have total victory? What does that mean?
Mr. McCLELLAN: A free democratic Iraq in the heart of the Middle East.
Because a free and democratic Iraq in the heart of the Middle East will be a
major blow to the ambitions...
Ms. THOMAS: If they ask us to leave, then we'll leave?
Mr. McCLELLAN: OK, I'm trying to respond. A free and democratic Iraq in the
heart of the broader Middle East will be a major blow to the ambitions of
al-Qaeda and their terrorist associates. They want to establish or impose
their rule over the broader Middle East. We saw that in the Zawahiri letter
that was released earlier this week by the intelligence community.
Ms. THOMAS: They also know we invaded Iraq.
Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, Helen, the president recognizes that we're engaged in a
global war on terrorism. And when you're engaged in a war, it's not always
pleasant. And it's certainly a last resort. But when you engage in a war,
you take the fight to the enemy. You go on the offense. And that's exactly
what we're doing. We are fighting them there so that we don't have to fight
them here. September 11th taught us...
Ms. THOMAS: This has nothing to do with...
Mr. McCLELLAN: I...
Ms. THOMAS: Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.
Mr. McCLELLAN: Yeah, well, you have a very different view of the war on
terrorism, and I'm sure you're opposed to the broader war on terrorism. The
president recognizes this requires a comprehensive strategy and that this is a
broad war, that it is not a law enforcement matter. Terry:
Mr. TERRY MORAN: I'm sorry. On what basis do you say Helen is opposed to
the broader war on terrorism?
Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, she certainly expressed her concerns about Afghanistan
and Iraq and going into those two countries. I think I can go back and pull
up her comments over the course of the past couple of years.
Mr. MORAN: And speak for her, which is odd.
Mr. McCLELLAN: I said--no, I said she may be because certainly if you look
at her comments over the course of the past couple of years...
Ms. THOMAS: I'm opposed to preemptive war.
Mr. McCLELLAN: ...she has expressed her concerns. She's expressed her
Ms. THOMAS: Unprovoked, preemptive war.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: OK, so that was Helen Thomas and my guest Scott McClellan at a press
Scott McClellan, was it a tactic when you or anyone else in the White House
was getting tough, challenging questions to try to discredit the reporter
asking the questions? In Helen Thomas' case to say, `Well, sure, you're
saying that because you don't believe in the broader war on terrorism.' Or
like when David Gregory was asking you after Hurricane Katrina if you had
confidence--I mean, if Bush had confidence in the head of FEMA and the head of
Homeland Security, and you kept accusing him of playing the blame game, of
finger pointing. And he said, `No, I want to know. It's a legitimate
question. Do you have confidence in the head of FEMA and Homeland Security?'
And you kept saying, `No, you're playing the blame game.' So was that like a
conscious tactic when someone's asking a question that seems challenging or,
you know, negative, to try to discredit them or make it seem like they were
being unpatriotic? Can you talk about that?
Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, I don't know about--I don't know so much about, or at
least from my standpoint, about unpatriotic, but, yes, in terms of--sometimes
in terms of deflecting the question or maybe discrediting. I mean, certainly
in the instance you when played with Helen Thomas, she is now an opinion
columnist, and she has very strong opinions, and she's also a very good
reporter. But absolutely, I mean, sometimes you're trying to deflect the
question and maybe turn it back to where you'll be in the position where
you're on the offensive instead of in this defensive crouch. And other times,
like with Helen Thomas, you're trying to turn it back to the broader message
we were trying to get across at the time, which was what I said in response to
her about, you know, fighting them over there instead of fighting them over
here and things of that nature.
GROSS: My guest is Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary to
President Bush. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Scott McClellan about serving as
President Bush's White House press secretary. Our interview was recorded in
June after the publication of his memoir "What Happened: Inside the Bush
White House and Washington's Culture of Deception."
Let's talk about Iraq. You write a lot about the lead-up to the war in Iraq
and what came afterwards in your book. One of the things you write is that
Bush and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decided to update the
Pentagon's war plans for Iraq in November 2001. In effect, you say, "Bush had
already made the decision to go to war even if he convinced himself it might
still be avoided." You say, "War was inevitable given the course of action the
president set from the beginning. Bush managed the crisis in a way that
almost guaranteed that the use of force would become the only feasible
option." Are you saying that this was intentional, to make sure that there was
no other option, that Bush did things like give an ultimatum at the UN, order
a massive buildup of American arms and military forces in the region to make
sure that, no matter what Congress wanted, no matter what the UN said, there
was no choice but to go to war?
Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, he left himself no flexibility whatsoever. And I think
his advisers served him poorly in that way. A president should always
maintain some flexibility. But it goes to what you just brought up, that the
president really had, I would come to learn, made his decision. And it's the
way President Bush operates, or approaches policy. He tends to be an
instinctive player and make the policy decision early on and then say, `How do
we go about implementing this?' And the policy decision he made early on was
that we're going to confront Saddam Hussein and just, not too long after 9/11,
we're going to confront Saddam Hussein. We're going to remove his regime
unless he comes fully clean. And I don't think, you know, reflecting back on
this, I think it was probably unreasonable to expect that Saddam Hussein was
going to be the kind of guy, given his past, that would just come fully clean
and say `OK, come into my country and you can go all over it and do whatever
GROSS: You write that you finally figured out that the decision to go to war
was based largely on the desire within the Bush administration to overthrow
Saddam Hussein and then spread democracy through the Middle East. The dream
of a democratic Middle East, you say, was the most powerful force behind
Bush's drive to war. But, you say, Bush and his advisers knew that the
American people would most certainly not support a war launched primarily for
the ambitious purpose of transforming the Middle East. And then you say that
rather than open this Pandora's box about spreading democracy through the
Middle East--because that would raise all kinds of questions...
Mr. McCLELLAN: Right.
GROSS: ...that instead the Bush administration tried to make the WMD threat
larger than it was, they tried to make the Iraqi connection to terrorism
appear more certain than it was, they quietly ignored or disregarded some of
the crucial caveats in the intelligence, minimized evidence that pointed in
the opposite direction. They used innuendo and implication to encourage
Americans to believe things that were unclear or possibly false about Iraq. A
lot of people have said this, but you're saying it from having been within the
inner circle. Tell us something that led you to these conclusions that only
somebody within the inner circle would know about.
Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, when I became press secretary I participated in many
world leader meetings with the president and saw up close in these small group
settings how passionately the president believed in the freedom agenda,
believed in transforming the Middle East as a key component of the war on
terrorism. And over the course of time I came to learn that that was really
what was driving his decision-making on Iraq and his belief--and it's also
something that probably clouds some of his judgement today in terms of being
able to recognize some of the larger realities of the problems that we have
faced over the course of time being in there.
But one of the themes in the book that I talk about is how dangerous it can
become when you take this permanent campaign, this political campaign
mentality, and transfer that over to the war-making decision process or
war-making campaign process. When you engage too much in trying to sell the
war and you get caught up in doing what you would do for any political
campaign or any other domestic policy issue and start overstating or
overpackaging the case, then it becomes very dangerous later on. And we saw
that. Because we weren't as open and forthright as we should have been, and
then it turned out that a lot of what we were saying was wrong.
GROSS: Scott McClellan, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. McCLELLAN: Thank you, Terry. I enjoyed it.
GROSS: Scott McClellan served as White House press secretary under President
Bush. Our interview was recorded in June after the publication of his memoir.
Our series on presidential history and politics concludes tomorrow. You can
download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.