Fighting Words

Fear Factor

How did we survive Ari Fleischer’s reign of terror?

And there it was again, in Frank Rich’s   column  (TimesSelect subscription required) in the New York Times of Sunday, Sept. 10, recalling the alleged pall of fear that fell over Americans five years ago this month:

The presidential press secretary, Ari Fleischer, condemned Bill Maher’s irreverent comic response to 9/11 by reminding “all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do.” Fear itself—the fear that “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” as FDR had it—was already being wielded as a weapon against Americans by their own government.

I have been meaning to put this pathetic canard out of its misery for some time now, and this week seems as good a time as any.

The first hundred or so times I was told about Ari Fleischer’s supposedly chilling words, or had them brought up against me in debates, I did not know how to dispute them and believed that they had actually been uttered as quoted above. My response was to say that the job of White House press secretary is one of the most unimportant in the government, and Ari Fleischer one of the most gentle and herbivorous people ever to hold the position, and that anyone who took fear at anything said by such a source was obviously pretty easily scared.

However, in March 2004 I saw a letter from Fleischer in the New York Times, this time responding to a column by Paul Krugman. Krugman’s reading of the original press conference on Sept. 26, 2001, was that the president’s press spokesman had “ominously warned” Americans to “watch what they say,” and that this amounted to telling citizens “to accept the administration’s version of events, not ask awkward questions.” Fleischer disputed this interpretation, and I decided to check if what he said was true, which it was and is. Here is the entire transcript if you care to check it, and here is the backstory to it:

Shortly after the assault of Sept. 11, a buffoonish Republican congressman from Louisiana named John Cooksey—incredibly enough, a member of the Committee on International Relations—had made the following contribution to the debate on ethnic profiling:

If I see someone come in and he’s got a diaper on his head and a fan belt around that diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over and checked.

This had provoked anguish in the Sikh community (though I remember my friend Hussein Ibish, then of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, saying that he refused to protest on the grounds that the remark was at least funny). Ari Fleischer was duly asked about the congressman at the briefing on Sept. 26 and responded as follows:

Q: Has the President had any communication with Representative Cooksey regarding his comments on Sikh Americans? And does he have a message for the lawmakers and members of his party in particular about this issue?A: The President’s message is to all Americans. It’s important for all Americans to remember the traditions of our country that make us so strong and so free, our tolerance and openness and acceptance. All Americans—and we come from a very rich cultural heritage, no matter what anybody’s background in this country. And that’s the strength of this country, and that’s the President’s message that he expressed in his speech to Congress and as he has done when he visited the mosque a week ago Monday, and in the meetings that he’s hosting here at the White House today with Muslim Americans and Sikh Americans.Q: Did he speak to Representative Cooksey, and what were his reactions upon hearing those?A: The President was very disturbed by those remarks.

Several questions later on, up came the matter of Bill Maher and his use of what Frank Rich oddly calls “comic irreverence:”

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 (sic) 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’s 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’s 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.

Is it not absolutely and glaringly obvious, from these exchanges, that the second reply from Fleischer is a direct reference back to his first one, which itself consists of a mild rebuke to a crass remark made by a Republican Congressman? No more is being urged, in either case, than a politically correct respect for civility in a rather testing time. The choice of the term watch might be slightly unfortunate (“be more careful in their choice of words” might have been better) but then, the questions are clumsily phrased as well. And in fact, Fleischer is clearly refusing, in the second instance, to be drawn or goaded into going further than the topic will warrant. It is quite impossible to read anything minatory or bullying into his answers. The word terrible is not that strong, and the word unfortunate is positively feeble, and both are delivered conditionally because Fleischer won’t even go as far as to say that he knows for sure what Maher had come up with! The only fear-mongering here comes from columnists who are too lazy to check (and too idle to read the letters to their own paper).

I do not know how many times I have either read or heard Fleischer being misquoted on this, either accidentally or deliberately, since his own modest letter was published in the New York Times two and a half years ago. But I think this slander should now be put to rest. I think so, first, because it is a minor injustice and a minor distortion of the historical record. I think so, second, because I recently spent a full hour being interviewed on Al-Jazeera, which was mounting a show on the “fear industry” in the United States. I felt obliged then, and feel obliged now, to say that such fear as there is has been principally the result of loud and gloating statements and actions, made and taken by people who thirst to kill us. To enjoy the privilege of a newspaper column, and to choose to stress instead the Fleischer reign of terror, strikes me as grotesque, and also as very slightly worrying.