Posted 5:24 p.m April 4
by Patrick W. Higgins
U-WIRE (DC BUREAU)
(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer fielded questions ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to freedom of the press during an hour-long appearance at The George Washington University this week.
“My biggest criticism of the press is that they focus on personality over policy,” Fleischer told an audience of 200 students. “I know that they won’t agree with me, but the press has more access now than they have ever had.”
The dialogue covered a broad spectrum of topics but focused mainly on the conflict in the Middle East, the role of the press in democracy, and Fleischer’s experience traveling with President George W. Bush on the morning of Sept. 11.
According to the press secretary, his job is to convey the will of the president without personal bias, a task he finds both challenging and fulfilling.
“You can’t make things up and you can’t lie,” Fleischer said. “The best way to prepare for this job is to think like a reporter.”
After sharing stories of his early days in politics, working as press secretary for numerous congressional leaders as well as for Elizabeth Dole during her presidential campaign, Fleischer took questions from the audience.
Students’ main concerns appeared to be focused on the impact that the terrorists’ attacks of Sept. 11 had on Fleischer’s day-to-day activities.
The press secretary responded by explaining that questions about “life and death” situations began to dominate the daily press briefings at the White House and that “social security lockboxes” were no longer an issue.
Fleischer then silenced the audience with his account of Sept. 11 which included a direct quote from White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card telling Bush about the attacks in New York City.
“I will never forget watching Andy Card lean over and tell President Bush, ‘the second tower has been hit. America is under attack.'”
Fleischer, who was with Bush in Florida on the morning of the attacks, continued to explain the evacuation of the White House which consisted of the Secret Service ordering all staff members to “run” from the complex and to remove their White House badges for fear of enemy attack.
The press secretary emphasized Bush’s calm and focused reaction to the news as he continued to speak to a class of third grade children. According to Fleischer, the president was clear from the very beginning about America’s action against terrorism.
“I will never forget what the president said that morning speaking to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, ‘We are at war, and when I find out who did this, the ball will be in your court,'” Fleischer recalled.
The conversation than turned to the importance of a free press in a democratic government.
“People in politics will come and go, but the press will always remain that’s what makes America the strongest, finest nation in the world,” Fleischer commented.
The press secretary’s words were not all kind for the press however, as he criticized major news sources for attacking the political figure as opposed to the political issue.
Responding to a student question concerning “leaks” from the White House staff, and the shadow government incident two months ago, Fleischer said, “Somebody talked. But I will say this, there is no shadow government, and the single best way to prevent White House leaks is to hire people who just will not talk.”
Pressed by students to clarify Bush’s plans for the Middle East, Fleischer explained that U.S. troops would never be sent to the Middle East to serve as anything more than peace mediators.
“The job of the American military is to go in, win wars, and get out of there,” he said.
The press secretary explained that the key to winning the war on terrorism was to remain consistent and that Israel has a right to defend its borders, but also warned that having Israeli tanks in the West Bank is not leading to a permanent peace solution.
In response to questions about the al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners being held in Cuba, Fleischer explained that because those individuals did not wear a uniform or attack soldiers, they were not considered prisoners of war and therefore should not be protected by the Geneva Convention. He warned that if terrorists were considered POW’s, then armies around the world would be “shedding” the uniforms.
“They [detainees in Cuba] are being extraordinarily well-treated,” he said. They are receiving the best health care that they have ever had.”