How did we survive Ari Fleischer's reign of terror?
And there it was again, in Frank Rich's column (TimesSelect subscription required) in the New York Times of Sunday, Sept. 10, recalling the alleged pall of fear that fell over Americans five years ago this month:
The presidential press secretary, Ari Fleischer, condemned Bill Maher's irreverent comic response to 9/11 by reminding "all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do." Fear itself—the fear that "paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance," as FDR had it—was already being wielded as a weapon against Americans by their own government.
I have been meaning to put this pathetic canard out of its misery for some time now, and this week seems as good a time as any.
The first hundred or so times I was told about Ari Fleischer's supposedly chilling words, or had them brought up against me in debates, I did not know how to dispute them and believed that they had actually been uttered as quoted above. My response was to say that the job of White House press secretary is one of the most unimportant in the government, and Ari Fleischer one of the most gentle and herbivorous people ever to hold the position, and that anyone who took fear at anything said by such a source was obviously pretty easily scared.
However, in March 2004 I saw a letter from Fleischer in the New York Times, this time responding to a column by Paul Krugman. Krugman's reading of the original press conference on Sept. 26, 2001, was that the president's press spokesman had "ominously warned" Americans to "watch what they say," and that this amounted to telling citizens "to accept the administration's version of events, not ask awkward questions." Fleischer disputed this interpretation, and I decided to check if what he said was true, which it was and is. Here is the entire transcript if you care to check it, and here is the backstory to it:
Shortly after the assault of Sept. 11, a buffoonish Republican congressman from Louisiana named John Cooksey—incredibly enough, a member of the Committee on International Relations—had made the following contribution to the debate on ethnic profiling:
If I see someone come in and he's got a diaper on his head and a fan belt around that diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over and checked.
This had provoked anguish in the Sikh community (though I remember my friend Hussein Ibish, then of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, saying that he refused to protest on the grounds that the remark was at least funny). Ari Fleischer was duly asked about the congressman at the briefing on Sept. 26 and responded as follows:
Q: Has the President had any communication with Representative Cooksey regarding his comments on Sikh Americans? And does he have a message for the lawmakers and members of his party in particular about this issue?
A: The President's message is to all Americans. It's important for all Americans to remember the traditions of our country that make us so strong and so free, our tolerance and openness and acceptance. All Americans—and we come from a very rich cultural heritage, no matter what anybody's background in this country. And that's the strength of this country, and that's the President's message that he expressed in his speech to Congress and as he has done when he visited the mosque a week ago Monday, and in the meetings that he's hosting here at the White House today with Muslim Americans and Sikh Americans.
Q: Did he speak to Representative Cooksey, and what were his reactions upon hearing those?
A: The President was very disturbed by those remarks.
Several questions later on, up came the matter of Bill Maher and his use of what Frank Rich oddly calls "comic irreverence:"
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Ari Fleischer on Slate's home page by Paul J. Richards/AFP Photo.