The press briefings of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are widely acknowledged to be the best show on television, and watching him perform in person is probably even more entertaining. By contrast, it must be hell to be trapped in the White House briefing room with Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. Reading the transcripts of Fleischer's performances on the Web, though, is fascinating. In a review last week of the various war briefers, my colleague David Plotz gave short shrift to Fleischer—dismissing him as an evasive bore. This doesn't give Fleischer nearly enough credit: He is a great evasive bore.
There's a war on, for heaven's sake. The fate of civilization may be at stake, and your job is to tell the world how the war is going. Under these circumstances, how hard is it to be interesting? On the other hand, to be boring and to stay boring—to maintain your rock-solid commitment to the lack of information while fascinating information cascades from the heavens all around you like emergency food parcels—takes discipline. It takes imagination. Let us not flinch: It takes genius.
Rumsfeld's techniques are fairly easy to discern. He gives the impression of enjoying himself. He teases the reporters. He uses vivid language. He seasons the agit-prop with refreshing little truthlets, like the fact that bombs kill people. He says things like "I don't know"—and not just in situations where it's obvious he really does know. He even says that he knows but won't say or that he's still thinking about it, two mental states that journalists have long suspected might exist among Washington officials.
How Fleischer does it is, like all genius, ultimately unfathomable to the rest of us. But we can study the texts, looking for clues. On Wednesday, for example, the question was: Is President Bush "prepared to do some horse trading" to get enhanced trade authority? In reply, Fleischer noted that "the President believes that trade is right on principle," noted it again, then continued:
Having said that, there are certain elements of trade that are always up for discussion; that there are valid points that members can make that typically do get discussed. And there is a lot of consultation that goes on in the trade process; many members of Congress, in exchange for giving up their right to amend an agreement that is submitted to them, seek an additional role in the negotiations. And so that is not an uncommon request from members of Congress. So the President will continue to act on principle as he works with members of Congress and listens to their ideas.
In other words: yes. Anyone can sound evasive when he's being evasive. It takes talent to sound evasive when you're not being evasive.
Fleischer speaks a sort of Imperial Court English, in which any question, no matter how specific, is parried with general assurances that the emperor is keenly aware and deeply concerned and firmly resolved and infallibly right and the people are fully supportive and further information should be sought elsewhere. Answering a sharp question about whether all the money investors lost in the Enron collapse had any effect on the administration's enthusiasm for privatizing Social Security, Fleischer first (like an unhelpful telephone receptionist) referred the questioner to the Treasury Department, then to the Labor Department, and then delivered a brilliantly bromidic defense of privatization that made no acknowledgment of anything about the question except its general subject matter.
The Middle East? "I think that, as always, the President wants events to develop over time in a way that he hopes will be fruitful …" That "as always" is truly bravura banality. Never for one moment has the president wavered in his desire to see events develop in ways he hopes will be fruitful. Logicians may puzzle over how it is even possible to hope that your own hopes be dashed, but in case it is possible, the president is not doing it.
When Fleischer produces a rare vivid image, it appears to be unintentional. But is it? On Wednesday, he was asked about the president's thoughts regarding the American who was caught fighting for the Taliban. Rather than say he didn't know the president's thoughts or that the president had no thoughts—dangerous territory—Fleischer rushed through only a few throat-clearing pieties to declare that "the president hasn't really entered the realm of conjecture." The image lingers, like one of those huge allegorical paintings in art museums: George W. Bush poised at the portals of the Realm of Conjecture. Will he enter? In the background are vignettes of other adventures: in the Land of Deficits, the Precinct of Chad, the National Guard of Texas. A clutch of advisers stands nearby, warning him away. Notice the brilliant blue of Dick Cheney's tie …
Don Rumsfeld paints a world reasonably similar to the one we really live in. Ari Fleischer creates an entire alternative universe. That is what makes him the greater artist.