A White House Spokesman's 'Urban Myth'

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ari Fleischer hasn't been seen much since he stepped down as White House press secretary in 2003 and moved out of the public spotlight. So it was a surprise when he e-mailed recently asking The Post to "correct the record" on a comment he made nearly eight years ago.

Fleischer, now a sports media consultant in New York, said that Post columnist Dana Milbank was guilty of repeating an "old canard" that has become an "urban myth."

At issue was a line in Milbank's humorous May 12 Washington Sketch column about Rush Limbaugh's towering ego. After quoting White House press secretary Robert Gibbs's disapproval of a joke about Limbaugh and the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers, Milbank wrote: "It had an unfortunate echo of Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer's denunciation of comedian Bill Maher after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: Americans need to 'watch what they say.' "

Fleischer quickly e-mailed Milbank: "You're not the first person to write that I said that about Maher -- but in fact that's not what I said about him."

The transcript of the Sept. 26, 2001, White House briefing confirms that Fleischer made the "watch what they say" comment and referred to Maher. So Milbank, who attended the briefing, is technically correct.

But I think he's journalistically wrong. Context is important, and a full reading of the transcript casts the remark in a different light that, at a minimum, suggests ambiguity.

At the time, the nation was reeling from the terrorist attacks. Amid widespread expressions of patriotism, there was concern about an anti-Muslim backlash. Several days earlier, Rep. John Cooksey, a Louisiana Republican who has since left Congress, told a radio audience that anyone wearing "a diaper on his head" should be investigated in connection with the attacks.

At the Sept. 26 briefing, Fleischer was asked if President Bush had "a message for lawmakers and members of his party" in reaction to Cooksey's comments. He responded: "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 are tolerance and openness and acceptance."

Later in the briefing Fleischer was asked about Maher, then host of the late-night TV show "Politically Incorrect," who had stirred controversy when he said it was inaccurate to characterize the terrorists as "cowards" because they were willing to die for their cause. "We have been the cowards," Maher added, "lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away; that's cowardly."

Fleischer's response: "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."

The linkage to Cooksey dilutes the exclusive criticism of Maher. And it's not obvious that the "watch what they say, watch what they do" comment is a veiled threat intended to restrict speech and expression rather than a plea for sensible conduct.

But the former meaning is what's clear to Milbank, who told me that the remarks were "intended to be chilling." Fleischer "was basically telling people 'we're at war; shut your mouth.' "

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