ANALYSIS: Profile - Fleischer factor: new man at the podium. For Ari Fleischer, a career in politics was a given - the surprise came when he switched sides. Douglas Quenqua finds out what led him to become the incoming president's main message man

Ari Fleischer, the man about to become the first Republican press secretary in the White House since 1992, was supposed to be a Democrat.

Ari Fleischer, the man about to become the first Republican press secretary in the White House since 1992, was supposed to be a Democrat.

Ari Fleischer, the man about to become the first Republican press secretary in the White House since 1992, was supposed to be a Democrat.

If geography and upbringing have any say whatsoever, then he really has no business being Republican. His parents were Democrats, and growing up, so was most of his neighborhood. So what happened?

Ask Jimmy Carter.

His parents raised him as a Democrat. They were politically active Jewish Americans, staunch in their party affiliation. Raising their three sons in the well-heeled neighborhood of Pound Ridge, NY, they passed down a sense of duty. 'Politics was the family business,' admits Fleischer.

They taught him, among other things, that Richard Nixon was bad. But they also taught him to have faith in his country - and therein lie the seeds of his transformation.

When Jimmy Carter and his famously contagious aura of malaise came along, Fleischer's emerging patriotism was left sorely unsatisfied. 'By the time I entered college, Carter kept apologizing for things we were doing around the world. We were still in the wake of Vietnam, and Carter wasn't puffing his chest out, which I thought he should be,' he recalls.

And along came Ronnie

Lucky for Fleischer, the eighties were just around the bend. 'Then Reagan came along with his wonderful patriotism, and I thought, 'This is the right course for our country.'' Hence, Fleischer's journey across the political divide was completed. 'My parents were horrified,' he laughs.

But Fleischer is no Alex P. Keaton, the character from the 80's hit sitcom Family Ties who was a republican in a hippie household. As a longtime spokesman for various Republican bodies, he is known for his spirit of fairness and restraint, often refusing to participate in the partisan invective that too often informs his line of work.

'I see a great opportunity to help people in this business. I also see a great silliness in it. I think you have to be mindful of both these facts, or you'll take yourself too seriously,' he says.

He should know. He's lived the lion's share of his professional life in the political arena. After graduating in 1982 with a degree in political science from Middlebury College in New York, still clinging to his Democratic roots, he signed on as press secretary for the congressional campaign of a little-known New York assemblyman. He now chuckles, with an infectious blend of pride and self-effacement, that 'it shows you how little experience you need to be a press secretary. I learned to write a press release by reading The New York Times and studying first paragraphs.' However, Fleischer concedes, he lost that campaign and was unemployed for five months.

In 1983, Fleischer dove headfirst into the Washington scene, sleeping on his brother's couch and working the phone banks in the basement of the Republican National Committee.

After that, he worked on several congressional campaigns, eventually landing the coveted role of field director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Then in 1989, Fleischer signed on as press secretary for Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), a post he held until early 1994.

Speaking from his Capitol Hill office, Domenici notes one of Fleischer's stand-out characteristics, one that endears him to his employers, but has sometimes created friction with the press: 'Ari's very concerned with how reporters carry the news that he's given to them. One time, there was an interview going on in my office, and we both had a feeling (the reporter) wasn't going to write what we said.

Once the story came out, you would not believe how far Ari was willing to go to correct it - he was willing to go all the way to the top. I eventually had to call him off.'

Out of the limelight

Over time, Fleischer became frustrated with living life in the political minority, and ventured briefly into the private sector, setting up his own DC communications company. But when the Republicans reclaimed the majority in Congress later in 1994, Fleischer returned to politics, this time as press secretary for the House Committee on Ways and Means. And there he stayed until 1999, when Elizabeth Dole came looking for a director of communications for her nascent presidential bid.

'The notion of running the show on a presidential campaign was a big appeal,' Fleischer recalls. What he reportedly found less appealing, however, was Dole's lack of enthusiasm when it came to engaging the media, a trait that led to his early departure.

The George W. Bush campaign came after him almost immediately, but a sense of obligation to Dole - as well as a host of offers from the private sector - kept Fleischer from signing on for a while at least.

'I had some people coming after me, including Microsoft and some others in the private sector, all of which would have given me the opportunity to work shorter hours and have a fluffier pillow.'

In the end, however, Bush's charisma won out. 'It's the way he relates to you. He brings people in and makes you feel at home.'

At least as much as any New York Jew can in a campaign as provincially Texan as Bush's. 'I refer to it as my one-year Washington Exchange Program in Texas. Every day I tried to teach the Texans one Yiddish word. I considered putting a sign on my door: 'Warning: You Have Entered a Y'all-Free Zone.''

These days, Fleischer is more often than not praised by the DC press.

Says Howard Kurtz, media reporter for The Washington Post: 'In a word, (he is) smooth as silk. Ari is well-liked by reporters and has mastered the art of helping without being too helpful - and he does it with a smile.'

Kurtz does, however, have his concerns. 'He can often be frustrating because he doesn't provide the kind of behind-the-scenes detail that journalists love. But he lets you know that he has a job to do and that he's only willing to go so far. His saving grace when the usual frictions arise is a very quick sense of humor.'

Indeed, that sense of humor is already getting him attention. When asked about a slew of controversial executive orders Clinton had administered in the waning days of his presidency, Fleischer quipped that the president had indeed been a 'busy beaver.' The line, hardly one worthy of Washington-style vitriol, was carried everywhere, from C-Span Radio to The Washington Post and beyond.

When asked to expand on 'busy-beaverness,' Fleischer responded with a grammar lesson: 'I think that's busy beaverhood.'

And what parent, Democrat or otherwise, wouldn't be proud of that?

Ari Fleischer

White House press secretary (starting January 20)

1985-1987: Field director, National Republican Congressional Committee

1988: Press secretary, Rep. Joe DioGuardi (R-NY)

1989-1994: Press secretary, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM)

1994: President, Ari Fleischer & Associates

1994-1999: Press secretary, House Committee on Ways and Means

1999: Director of communications, Elizabeth Dole's presidential campaign

1999-2000: Deputy spokesman, George W. Bush presidential campaign

2001: White House press secretary.

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