'Proud' Fleischer stood by side of president after horrors of 9/11

HOUSE TIES: Ari Fleischer, second right, is the butt of President George W Bush's joke after not wearing a tie on the White House Lawn in 2002. Also pictured are senior adviser Karl Rove, second left, and Chief of Staff Andrew Card


ARI Fleischer has an indelible link to one of the most monumental days in world history.

In his role as White House press secretary, Ari was at the side of President George W Bush on September 11, 2001.

Ari is among the few who can recount the reaction of the president and staff on what would become a generation-shaping day.

He served the president from January 2001 until July 2003 before burn-out took its toll.

"The president was tense, sombre and serious," said the 52-year-old. "There was a certain calm about things and a need to properly assess the information coming at us.

"I was with the president all day - in the Florida school and in his cabin aboard Air Force One.

"I was trying to make notes on what was being said to him while paying careful attention to what was happening on the news.

"What became perfectly clear instantly was that this was the day that would define his time in office."

Life is somewhat calmer these days. He lives with his wife and two children in New York City and runs Ari Fleischer Sports Communications.

He offers media management to some of the most famous athletes in the world, but Ari says it is not too different to his previous life.

"There are amazing similarities between politics and sports", he said.

"The intensity and controversy in sports is the same as in politics. Both create a feeding frenzy.

"At first you would not think there were any similarities at all, but in reality both politics and sports are the two items that dominate news agendas."

Ari was born in Westchester County, New York, on October 13, 1960.

Intriguingly, he was raised in a Democrat household. His father is American, but his mother arrived in the country from Hungary in August 1939 following the death of much of her family at the hands of the Nazis.

He recalled: "My parents were both political activists and I was surrounded by political rhetoric.

"A great deal of my childhood was spent stuffing envelopes for local politicians. Both my parents are proud Democrats.

"My dad never voted for a Republican and never will. My parents were horrified when I told them I was a Republican.

"It was President Jimmy Carter that drove me away from the Democratic party and President Ronald Reagan who welcomed me into the Republicans."

Ari worked his way up the political ladder and served many roles as a Congressional staffer before taking a position as deputy communications director in President George Bush Sr's 1992 re-election campaign.

Having worked for both Bush presidents, he is able to compare the two.

He said: "Bush senior was less emotional and came from an older school of thought. Bush junior has much more of his mother about him than his father.

"He is certainly more emotional, feistier and conservative."

His involvement with George W Bush also meant he had a front row seat to the most controversial Presidential election of all time when, in 2000, Bush and vice-president Al Gore were neck-and-neck in the Florida polls.

Gore along with running mate Joe Lieberman, the Jewish senator for Connecticut, had previously conceded the election, but would spectacularly withdraw this concession.

Ari recounted: "That election was torture. Every morning you would wake up with this lost feeling.

"We would spend each day groping around and trying to figure out what to do. After all, this was a situation without precedent.

"Thankfully we came through and I was officially offered the position of White House press secretary.

"It was an intense thrill, mixed with a little awe and a sense of trepidation. But I had the best boss you could possibly ask for.

"I never wanted to let him down because of how well he treated his staff.

"President Bush is a wonderful and caring man who everyone had a lot of respect for. I felt a great deal of loyalty to him because of how kind he was."

Life in the White House, according to Ari, is emotionally and physically draining.

It was this strain that led to his resignation in 2003 when he cited "exhaustion" as the mitigating factor.

A typical day would begin at 5am and end at 10pm. He explained: "I would read a few of the papers at home before heading into work.

"By the time I met with my staff at 7am, they had read a lot of major newspapers from around the world and handed me anything they thought I should know about.

"The senior staff meeting would begin at 7.30am and we would discuss what the president should deal with.

"The best part of my day was undoubtedly the time spent in the Oval Office.

"I would listen to what the president was saying and the information that was coming towards him so when I briefed the press I would be fully aware of all situations."

The job of press secretary is fraught with difficulty.

On one hand the incumbent is a friend to the press and their primary link to the president, but the secretary serves at the pleasure of his paymaster.

He said: "You try and serve both parties, but in reality you serve the man who employs you.

"While I felt I had a very important obligation to the press I was also trying to stop them digging at things.

"The best secretaries find the correct balance, but it is a very tricky job.

"Hence there is a forever and inherent complication around the position."

Complicated is a word that perhaps sums up the Bush presidency.

When America, along with the UK, invaded Iraq in 2003 they were left empty-handed in their search for weapons of mass destruction.

This led many to paint President Bush as a liar, war criminal and opportunist who was simply looking to raid Iraq of its oil.

Such a statement angers Ari. He dismisses claims that Bush lied and is adamant that the liar was, in fact, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

He recounted: "All the intelligence we had from the CIA was that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

"This was the same intelligence that the UK, France, Israel and every other major nation also had.

"What were we supposed to do? Ignore it?

"I have gone over it so many times, trying to think if we could have done anything differently, but we could not have.

"I have huge regrets that we were wrong and the grave consequences that came from that, but we faithfully reported, and acted on, what we thought was the truth.

"Furthermore, the world is undoubtedly a better place without Saddam Hussein.

"We are now seeing relative calm in Iraq compared to elsewhere in the region.

"But I must make this abundantly clear: George W Bush did not lie to the world."

When it comes to Israel, President Bush is considered to be one of the greatest American friends the country has ever had.

One of the hardest questions for any US president to answer is the Arab-Israeli conflict and as such Ari is proud of the role the Bush administration played.

He is also extremely forthright in his assessment of the current landscape in Israel.

He revealed: "I would like to believe in a two-state solution and I would like to hope that the Palestinians are ready, willing and able to assume the mantle of responsibility.

"Yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to see that Israel has a partner in peace.

"The Palestinians need a real leader who can galvanise them. At the moment it is too hard for Israel.

"As for (current president) Barack Obama - I have no idea what his foreign policy is.

"He is standing on the sidelines and he feels things are worse when the USA intervenes.

"He has missed the chance to help moderates in Syria and now Hezbollah and Iran have taken over.

"When the USA intervenes there are consequences, sometimes grave ones, but they are worth it.

"Now we have 80,000 dead Syrians and Assad has taken over."

He does have some praise for the president: "Obama has done well on fighting terror. He has extended a lot of the policies implemented by Bush such as drone strikes, warrantless wire tapping and secret prisons, but Obama has left a vacuum in the world that has been filled by the wrong people."

The Arab-Israeli conflict is, of course, a subject close to Ari's heart.

He is a proud Jew and says his religion has played a defining role in his life.

He admitted: "When I was standing at the White House podium I was always very proud to be Jewish.

"I had a real sense of awareness that I was a Jewish man representing the USA on a global stage. It is a big part of my life for sure. A private one albeit.

"Judaism has helped shape my views on the world and tikum olam (heal the world) is a message I always carry with me.

"That notion of shared responsibility means a great deal to me."

Ari currently holds an administrative position on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition and he is adamant that the Republican party needs to evolve.

He said: "In the eyes of many we have become intolerant of minorities.

"At the last election Romney was the best of the available crop, but he did not have a clear ideology which meant he contorted himself to suit everyone."

The Republican Jewish Coalition, according to Ari, seeks to inform and educate voters on Jewish policies and Ari says it plays "a key role in Presidential politics" and "probably has a disproportionate influence for a small organisation".

Yet he does not see any Jewish presidential candidates on the horizon and states that a Hispanic is probably in pole position to claim the White House.

But when it comes to his Judaism one particular event from his time in the White House stands out.

In 2001 Rosh Hashana fell just a few days after the event of 9/11. Ari, having never worked on Rosh Hashana, faced a tricky dilemma.

The country was in a vulnerable position and he could not afford a day off - even if it was for religious reasons.

After consultation with his rabbi, Ari decided he would go to shul in the morning and then head straight to the White House afterwards.

He recalled: "I still felt very uncomfortable going to work.

"I was conscious of showing the world that I was working on Rosh Hashana.

"I was going to make reference to it in my briefing that day, but my staff said it was unnecessary to bring my private life into the public domain.

"Luck would have it that I was asked a question about a morning meeting that I would normally have attended.

"That was my opportunity to say that I had been in shul.

"At that moment I felt tremendous pride at being a Jew and being able to send a message to the world."

For now, politics is behind Ari, but he knows that he will never lose his political appetite.

He still keeps up-to-date with the news, but missed the 'reunion' at Bush's Presidential Library opening.

"I was really busy the day it was opened, but I got a private tour two weeks beforehand," he stated.

"The legacy of Bush and what we did in office will not fully flower for another 50 years but I feel that America is reassessing Bush.

"Bush has high approval ratings, but I do not think his legacy will chance drastically for the time being."

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph