- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2005

TAKING HEAT: THE PRESIDENT, THE PRESS, AND MY YEARS IN THE WHITE HOUSE

By Ari Fleischer

William Morrow, $26.95, 370 pages

Serving as press secretary to the president of the United States sounds like a fascinating job, and in some ways it is. In other ways, however, it isn’t, because dealing with the prima donnas of the White House press can be — and almost always is — hard and exasperating work.

Ari Fleischer, who spent two-and-a-half years as press secretary to President Bush, has written a book about his time in the White House and his dealings with the White House press corps. He calls it “Taking Heat,” and take heat is what he did as he sought to tread the fine line between serving his president and dealing honestly and forthrightly with a seldom appreciative press.

Anyone interested in the inner workings of the White House will find “Taking Heat” both interesting and educational. Anyone looking for a kiss-and-tell book about problems, conflict or feuds in the Bush White House, however, shouldn’t bother reading it.

Likewise, it will be a waste of time for anyone expecting Mr. Fleischer to second-guess his old boss or disclose any character flaws or weaknesses. Mr. Fleischer clearly is not that kind of a man. Furthermore, as far as he is concerned, Mr. Bush is the kind of a leader who both inspires loyalty and returns it.

While much of “Taking Heat” is a recounting of some of the more significant of Mr. Fleischer’s daily encounters with the White House press corps, it is also a description of what he thinks about the reporters with whom he deals and an explanation of what is behind his thinking.

Additionally, the book is also the inside story of what really happenedin certain instances as compared to what the press told the public. Sophisticated readers will not be surprised to find that from time to time there were differences between the two. Altogether, despite some obvious padding and two absolutely unnecessary chapters, “Taking Heat” is a book most readers will find worthwhile.

Mr. Fleischer was a veterancongressional spokesman and press secretary who, before signing on with Mr. Bush’s presidential campaign, had a brief stint as press secretary to Elizabeth Dole during her short-lived run for president. Thus, he was no novice in dealing with the press when Mr. Bush became president. Even so, he found the White House press a different can of worms entirely.

Mr. Fleischer works hard at defending the White House press as a body, but finds it difficult not to let come through some of his irritation and resentment at their often openly anti-Bush attitudes and questions. He mainly blames their attitude, as well as their mistakes, on a drive to find conflict anywhere and everywhere. But also he complains about their tendency to hype the news, their tilt toward commentary instead of straight reporting and “a subtle but important liberal bias.”

But there is more to the book than complaints about bias, for whatever reason. Of special interest to this reader was his description of the president’s reaction following the terrorist attacks of September 11. Much has been written by people who were not there about the president’s apparent indecision, his delay in returning home and the role of Vice President Dick Cheney.

In Mr. Fleischer’s mind there is do doubt that the president was in charge from the beginning. He writes: “Two things struck me watching events in the early hours of September 11. One was the confusion and the lack of facts. The other was the president’s instant recognition that this was war and his determination to lead our nation in winning it.”

Reading the several pages dealing with September 11 one has to conclude that Mr. Bush has no greater admirer and no stronger defender than his former press secretary. As a result, liberals may well see a strong bias in what Mr. Fleischer writes. But even allowing for that possibility, one cannot read the book without coming away with a feeling that the president Mr. Fleischer knows is a man of strong beliefs, equally strong determination and genuine compassion.

And also that he was fortunate indeed to have a man of Mr. Fleischer’s experience and loyalty serve as his press secretary during about as rough a two-and-a-half-year period as any new president has had to endure.

Oh, yes. Those two unneeded chapters deal with a pair of elderly and especially contentious old-time reporters whom Mr. Fleisher treats more kindly than they probably deserve. You’ll know them when you read about them.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, served as an adviser to President Reagan.

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