A wave of nostalgia passed over Chatterbox as he read Ari Fleischer’s letter to the editor in the March 24 New York Times. As Jonathan Chait notes in the March 29 New Republic, Fleischer’s successor, Scott McClellan, lacks Fleischer’s talent for prevarication. Where Fleischer “could spin elaborate webs of obfuscation, leaving the press corps mystified and docile,” McClellan tends to get shifty-eyed and to repeat non-responsive answers robotically. McClellan is obviously too decent to lie with any enthusiasm or skill, and that’s clearly good news for the republic. But Fleischer’s outrageousness was very entertaining. He was not just a liar but (to borrow a phrase coined by Newsweek’s Evan Thomas) an exuberantliar. It’s difficult to suppress the impure thought that Washington was more fun when he was behind the lectern.
Fleischer’s letter encapsulates perfectly his dauntless black-is-white, up-is-down style of prevarication. It’s a response to the following unexceptional passage in Paul Krugman’s New York Times column of March 23:
After 9/11, the administration’s secretiveness knew no limits—Americans, Ari Fleischer ominously warned, “need to watch what they say, watch what they do.” Patriotic citizens were supposed to accept the administration’s version of events, not ask awkward questions.
Fleischer said precisely what Krugman attributed to him. It was his answer to a reporter’s question about Bill Maher’s criticism of President Bush, on his ABC show Politically Incorrect, for calling the 9/11 suicide bombers “cowardly.” Maher’s comment came in response to an observation by conservative guest Dinesh D’Souza that
one of the themes we hear constantly is that the people who did this are cowards. Not true. Look at what they did. First of all, you have a whole bunch of guys who are willing to give their life. None of ‘em backed out. All of them slammed themselves into pieces of concrete.
It was a trenchant observation, possibly cribbed from a column Chatterbox had written earlier complaining that when presidents denounce acts of terrorism using the language of machismo rather than the language of morality—Clinton used to do it, too—they abandon both the high ground and the truth. Maher’s follow-up demonstrated that even when applied logically, the Manliness template takes you places you don’t want to go. “We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away,” Maher quipped. “That’s cowardly.”
Tasteless? Of course, but the tastelessness underscored the idiocy of viewing terrorist acts through the lens of machismo rather than the lens of decency, which was very likely Maher’s point. If Maher had added, “What we should prize is not fearlessness per se, but bravery in the pursuit of decent ends,” he might have gotten himself off the hook. (Instead, he later babbled something about how it was the politicians that were the real cowards for “not letting the military do their job.”) In any event, the crack cost Maher his job, though you can now see him dispense topical witticisms on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher.
But we digress.
At a press briefing on Sept. 26, 2001, Fleischer was asked about the president’s response to Maher’s jab. After saying he hadn’t discussed the matter with President Bush, Fleischer served up the thuggish comment quoted with perfect accuracy by Krugman. Here’s the exchange in full:
Q: As Commander-In-Chief, what was the President’s reaction to television’s Bill Maher, in his announcement that members of our Armed Forces who deal with missiles are cowards, while the armed terrorists who killed 6,000 unarmed are not cowards, for which Maher was briefly moved off a Washington television station?A: I have not discussed it with the President, one. I have—Q: Surely, as a—A: I’m getting there.Q: Surely as Commander, he was enraged at that, wasn’t he?A: I’m getting there, Les. Q: Okay. A: I’m aware of the press reports about what he said. I have not seen the actual transcript of the show itself. But assuming the press reports are right, it’s a terrible thing to say, and it unfortunate. And that’s why—there was an earlier question about has the President said anything to people in his own party—they’re reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.
Now comes Fleischer telling New York Times readers he’s being quoted out of context. The audacity of this claim commands respect, given the irrefutable sequence of question and answer.
Fleischer says his watch-what-you-say comment was directed not at Maher, but rather at “a Republican congressman from Louisiana who said that if he saw a Sikh-American with a towel wrapped around his head, he would tell the Sikh to get out of his state.” This unnamed blowhard is Rep. John Cooksey, who retired from the House in 2002. Fleischer can’t even be trusted to get Cooksey’s bigoted comment right. Cooksey referred to turbans as diapers, not towels, and he said that Sikhs should be interrogated at random, not ejected from his state.
Now, it’s true Fleischer had earlier been asked about Cooksey’s outburst. He’d answered that President Bush “was very disturbed by those remarks.” And as you can see, Fleischer did group Maher’s comment with Cooksey’s (“there was an earlier question about has the President said anything to people in his own party”) when he warned ominously that people “need to watch what they say.” But Fleischer’s argument to Times readers isn’t that he paired criticism of Maher’s swipe at Bush with criticism of Cooksey’s bigotry. Rather, his argument is that he was responding only to Cooksey’s bigotry.“My remarks urged tolerance and openness and were addressed to those who made statements and threatened actions against Muslims or Sikhs in America,” he concludes. Although he acknowledges there was a question about Maher, he won’t acknowledge that his answer had anything to do with Maher.
Fleischer’s haughty command that people should “watch what they say” isn’t even an especially good response to Rep. Cooksey’s bigotry. In fact, democracy works better when politicians don’t disguise their true nature. Cooksey’s example is a case in point. He gave up his House seat to challenge Sen. Mary Landrieu. He lost, partly, Chatterbox assumes, because voters had learned from his diaper crack that he was stupid and mean. Cooksey is now reportedly considering a run for his old seat, and if he does his opponents will make sure to remind voters about his post-9/11 outburst. If Cooksey had watched what he said, he’d enjoy greater but undeserved political stature today. Aren’t you glad he didn’t?