Normally adept at not becoming the news, White House press
secretary Ari Fleischer has found himself on oped pages all over the
country after making an unusually ill-advised comment about comedian
Bill Maher, the host of Politically Incorrect, and failing to clarify
On September 26, Fleischer was asked for President Bush's reaction to
Maher's statement that Americans, not terrorists, "have been the
cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away." Maher went on
to acknowledge the terrorist's "courage" for carrying out their suicide
mission. Fleischer responded that he had not spoken to the president
about the comments, but nevertheless scolded: "All Americans ... need to
watch what they say, and watch what they do. This is not a time for
remarks like that; there never is."
Journalists and free speech advocates, who are peculiarly sensitive to
any perceived restrictions of the freedom of speech right now, pounced
on this comment from Fleischer, suggesting that he was using patriotism
to force everyone to tow his line. One scathing article in Cleveland's
The Plain Dealer suggested, "the deranged hijackers who killed thousands
would be pleased to know they had also killed free speech." Equally
cutting, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times commented, "Patriotism, it
seems, is the last refuge of spinners." Ouch!
Presumably Fleischer realized his error, since the White House
transcripts of his speech were released without the phrase "need to
watch what they say." This omission was initially explained by deputy
press secretary Anne Womack as a transcribing error, but a week later
the "error" has still not been corrected.
Of course, few would disagree with the sentiment behind Fleischer's
comments - that we all have to be especially sensitive to other's
feelings in the present climate. But it was ill-judged in that it seemed
to go further than simply reminding us to be sensitive. And it is not
Fleischer's place to make such comments given that his words carry the
weight of the president and are therefore tantamount to a federal
Arguably, however, Fleischer's biggest error in public relations terms
was not his initial statement. After all, even the president's press
secretary can misjudge a remark from time to time, especially when he's
under such extreme pressure. His biggest mistake was failing to clarify
the White House's position after the act. Omitting the phrase from the
transcript does not clarify the situation, it further confuses it.
Fleischer should have revoked his remarks, made it clear that he had
spoken out of turn, and explained the president's position. No
professional communicator enjoys having to take such steps, but
sometimes they are necessary. Certainly they are in this case.