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Ari Fleischer's View From the Briefing Room

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; Page C01

Day after day, Ari Fleischer stood at the White House podium and insisted the administration knew that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons.

Is he embarrassed about that?

"Taking Heat," Ari Fleischer's book about his tenure as White House press secretary, hits stores today. (Charles Dharapak -- AP)

"I said what the government was thinking at the time," says the former presidential press secretary. "I accurately articulated what we believed."

But since that turned out to be untrue, wasn't his own credibility tarnished? "Everyone recognizes the press secretary is not the finder of facts."

Fleischer's book, "Taking Heat," is out today, and while his style isn't to smack people around, he is the first Bush administration insider to offer a sustained indictment of the media. White House correspondents, he says, are mostly liberal. Mostly negative. Mostly opposed to tax cuts. Mostly unwilling to give his president a break. Mostly interested in whipping up conflict.

He portrays journalists as good human beings who, sad to say, are biased and defensive. Even when ripping Hearst columnist Helen Thomas -- "I don't care for her politics one little bit" -- Fleischer hastens to add: "Helen and I could go at each other in the briefing room but in private we really like each other."

His technique is to publish some of her questions:

"Does the president think that his hands-off policy has contributed in any way to the hopelessness and the rising violence in the Middle East?"

"Ari, does the president think the Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal military occupation and suppression?"

"My follow-up is, why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?"

Says Thomas: "The questions I asked should have been asked by 10 more reporters in the run-up to war, which proved that everything they said was not true." She says Fleischer was not only a spokesman for the president but "owed credibility to the American people. I'm sure he got mad at me. He had to defend what was indefensible, in my opinion."

Fleischer had questioned whether Jeff Gannon, the conservative reporter who turned out to have an X-rated past, worked for a real news outlet before agreeing to call on him. But there are plenty of oddballs in residence, the former spokesman says. He cites radio host Lester Kinsolving, who asked such questions as: "Does President Bush believe that his predecessor President Jefferson was a child-molesting rapist or not?"

"The briefing room has a long tradition of being home to colorful characters of the left and right," Fleischer says. "It'd be easier on the press secretary if those characters were gone. But I don't think that's the right thing to do."

Fleischer was a longtime GOP spokesman on Capitol Hill who joined Bush's 2000 campaign as press secretary, a job he held in the White House for 2 1/2 years until succumbing to "burnout." He has returned to his home town in Westchester County, N.Y., with his wife, Becki, a former White House aide, and their 9-month-old daughter. Now he makes speeches for cash and advises corporations.

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