- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2003

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer announced yesterday that he will resign in July to spend more time with his new wife and avoid being drawn into President Bush’s re-election campaign.

“I really want to unwind, do something more relaxing, like dismantle live nuclear weapons,” Mr. Fleischer told reporters. “Something more restful, more relaxing, would be now to wrestle alligators for a living.”

The unflappable spokesman has held the post of press secretary since Mr. Bush took office 28 months ago. By contrast, President Clinton was well into his third spokesman, Mike McCurry, by this point in his first term.

Mr. Fleischer could have stayed longer but has begun to grow weary of the long hours at the White House and the grueling travel schedule of the president. He hinted that some of job had begun to lose its appeal.

“You have to find the joy in the business. You have to find the love for the job and the call to service,” he said. “But you’ve got to know in your heart when it’s time to go.”

Mr. Fleischer said he began considering his resignation months ago and eventually discussed it with his wife, Becki, whom he married in November. He broke the news to his boss Friday.

“I think his first clue was, when I walked into the Oval on Friday, I did something I’ve never done before, which was close the door behind me,” Mr. Fleischer said. “He knew that I was leaving.”

“It was the most warm, sweet conversation you can imagine,” he said, adding that the conversation ended with Mr. Bush kissing him on the head.

Mr. Fleischer would not speculate on whether his deputy, Scott McClellan, would succeed him. Other names that have been mentioned include Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke and Bush aide Jim Wilkinson.

“Whatever advice I give the president, I’ll do so privately,” Mr. Fleischer said.

Mr. Fleischer said he has not talked with anyone outside the White House about a job. He wants to spend some time giving speeches and perhaps writing a memoir of his time in the administration and eventually take a job in the private sector.

Mr. Fleischer said he wants to stay in Washington for a couple years, then return to his native Westchester County, N.Y.

“I will not run for office,” Mr. Fleischer said. “If I were running for office, I would not have an ‘R’ after my name and move back to New York.”

By the time Mr. Fleischer departs in July, he will have spent four years working for Mr. Bush. The spokesman joined the Bush campaign in 1999 after his former boss, Elizabeth Dole, dropped out of the presidential race.

It has been a momentous period in American history, encompassing the Florida recount wars and military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it was not difficult for Mr. Fleischer to name his most unforgettable moment.

“How could it be a anything other than September 11?” he said. “To travel on September 11, a day just as innocent as any other day, and to arrive at that school in Florida, only to find out our country was under attack. I think that was a day that we always remember.”

Although Mr. Fleischer often frustrated reporters who felt he should give them more information, the White House press corps gave him a rare round of applause yesterday at an off-camera briefing. Later in the day, during an on-camera session, many journalists praised Mr. Fleischer.

A few, however, were pleased to see him go and toasted his departure at a watering hole near the White House.

Unlike former Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart, Mr. Fleischer rarely used partisan attacks against the opposition from the podium of the White House press briefing room. And unlike former Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry, Mr. Fleischer did not appear to split his loyalties between press and president.

Instead, he dutifully exercised extraordinary discipline with the White House message of the day. In the face of hostile questions from an adversarial press, Mr. Fleischer almost never misspoke.

One exception occurred in February 2002, when Mr. Fleischer remarked that Mr. Clinton had tried to “shoot the moon” with the Middle East peace process and ended up with “nothing” except “more violence.”

It was a reference to Mr. Clinton’s frenzied peace negotiations in the closing months of his term, when he tried to get both the Israelis and Palestinians to accept a comprehensive peace deal all at once, rather than in increments.

Although Mr. Fleischer was accurately reflecting the Bush administration’s thoughts about the failed Clinton talks, the press pounced on his rare outburst of candor. Former Clinton officials called for a retraction, and Mr. Fleischer backpedaled.

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