White House Vet Ari Fleischer, Back to Fight for The Surge in Iraq

By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 24, 2007

The television ads launched this week by a new advocacy group called Freedom's Watch all have different storytellers tapping into the same narrative vein. There's the man who lost both legs in Fallujah last December saying if we pull out now "everything I've given and sacrificed will mean nothing." Another features a woman who says she lost two family members to al-Qaeda -- her uncle on 9/11 and her husband who died fighting in Iraq -- adding that should the United States pull its troops out now "it will mean more attacks in America." Still another shows a wheelchair-using former Marine telling the camera that he believes the United States has made progress in Iraq and would go back if he could.

As the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke Skywalker in "Return of the Jedi," "Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view." And if these ads seem born from behind the podium of the White House press secretary, they very well should. That's because Freedom's Watch -- which is planning to spend $15 million in television and radio advertising through mid-September -- counts among its board members and donors several longtime friends of the Bush White House. Prominent among them is Ari Fleischer, President Bush's first press secretary, who left Washington and politics four years ago, seemingly never to return.

"The notion we could lose this war in Iraq because Congress pulled out scared me," says Fleischer, a founding board member of Freedom's Watch. "That's why I got back involved. That's the only issue that could draw me back in.

"It's fair to say that since 2004 this debate has been dominated by one side. All the passion, all the organization, all the energy has been on one side. Now the cavalry is coming. My side will get a chance to get its say. That's really what drove us."

That the 46-year-old Fleischer would be helping to lead any kind of political charge again seemed unlikely when he stepped away from center stage. He was pretty close to burnout and didn't want to stick around town and lobby or even work on another taxing presidential campaign. And while he did some speaking engagements and the obligatory book tour, he didn't spend his evenings being the president's proxy, verbally tussling with Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews.

Instead Fleischer returned home to suburban New York. He opened a small office in Bedford doing communications and strategy for corporate and sports clients. And he began raising a family (he has a 3-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son). "There's a lot of happiness and bills paid on time in the private sector," he says.

"Personally I looked at myself as retired from politics. I played. I dabbled. I kept in touch with the president and my old friends at the White House, but I was happily distanced. I was happily gone."

But like Obi-Wan, Fleischer was drawn back into the fight. This return began last spring when Fleischer began speaking with Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and Mel Sembler, the former ambassador to Italy who currently serves as chairman of the (Lewis "Scooter") Libby Legal Defense Trust. They'd seen support for the war and the president dwindle. It was then they decided to act.

Fleischer helped craft the group's message while others began to raise money. To run the operation on a day-to-day basis, the group chose another veteran of the Bush administration, former deputy assistant to the president Bradley A. Blakeman. Freedom's Watch is staffing up and will have an office in downtown Washington next month. And while a communications guy will be hired, Fleischer will remain important in the group's push to increase public support for the surge.

"Ari's the central manager of our message, which is supporting a strong national defense against terror and achieving prosperity through free enterprise," Sembler says.

Even with Fleischer's expertise, selling the American public on a happy ending in Iraq would seem a difficult task.

"Look, I greatly admire what Freedom's Watch is attempting to do," David Bass, managing director of Qorvis Communications and a former deputy publisher of the conservative Weekly Standard, says in an e-mail. "And I greatly respect Ari for doing this. The poll numbers in support of the war are risibly low. The antiwar forces are currently winning the public relations war. That being said, for an effort like this to succeed, they will need a broad base of support, and I mean Democrats too -- ex-military, government officials, whatever. Sans broad support, they can expect to watch the blogosphere go crazy, not that they already haven't, calling this a lame attempt by the Bush Administration, through past officials, to slap rose-tinted lenses on a bad situation."

"The White House running an ad campaign is a sign of desperation, and Ari Fleischer's emergence is so ironic since he's the guy that pitched the lies that got us into the war in the first place," says Tom Matzzie, Washington director of MoveOn.org.

"Our view is that it is a big strategic mistake to put Iraq on TV," Matzzie says. "The more Iraq is on TV, the more it's bad for the president, for his supporters and the Republicans in 2008."

The impact Freedom's Watch will have is, of course, still unclear. And Fleischer acknowledges that his knowledge of Washington shows some wear.

"I feel like a press secretary whose memory of who sat in the front row is really old," he says. "Most of the reporters I worked with are off doing other things or they themselves are retired, except Helen [Thomas]. It just amazes me how fast this business changes in the four years I've been gone."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company