Q: As Commander-in-Chief, what was the President's reaction to television's Bill Maher, in his announcement that members of our armed forces who deal with missiles are cowards, while the armed terrorists who killed 6,000 unarmed (sic) are not cowards, for which Maher was briefly moved off a Washington television station?
A: I have not discussed it with the President, one. I have …
Q: Surely, as a—
A: I'm getting there.
Q: Surely as Commander, he was enraged at that, wasn't he?
A: I'm getting there, Les.
A: I'm aware of the press reports about what he's said. I have not seen the actual transcript of the show itself. But assuming the press reports are right, 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.
Is it not absolutely and glaringly obvious, from these exchanges, that the second reply from Fleischer is a direct reference back to his first one, which itself consists of a mild rebuke to a crass remark made by a Republican Congressman? No more is being urged, in either case, than a politically correct respect for civility in a rather testing time. The choice of the term watch might be slightly unfortunate ("be more careful in their choice of words" might have been better) but then, the questions are clumsily phrased as well. And in fact, Fleischer is clearly refusing, in the second instance, to be drawn or goaded into going further than the topic will warrant. It is quite impossible to read anything minatory or bullying into his answers. The word terrible is not that strong, and the word unfortunate is positively feeble, and both are delivered conditionally because Fleischer won't even go as far as to say that he knows for sure what Maher had come up with! The only fear-mongering here comes from columnists who are too lazy to check (and too idle to read the letters to their own paper).
I do not know how many times I have either read or heard Fleischer being misquoted on this, either accidentally or deliberately, since his own modest letter was published in the New York Times two and a half years ago. But I think this slander should now be put to rest. I think so, first, because it is a minor injustice and a minor distortion of the historical record. I think so, second, because I recently spent a full hour being interviewed on Al-Jazeera, which was mounting a show on the "fear industry" in the United States. I felt obliged then, and feel obliged now, to say that such fear as there is has been principally the result of loud and gloating statements and actions, made and taken by people who thirst to kill us. To enjoy the privilege of a newspaper column, and to choose to stress instead the Fleischer reign of terror, strikes me as grotesque, and also as very slightly worrying.