May 19, 2003 | Broadcast

Crossfire – White House Communications

Of course, all of those options would still be available a year or two years from now. So the question is, why is Ari leaving now? More importantly, though, can we trust any White House press secretary in an administration that promises straight talk but has given us nothing but double talk?

In the CROSSFIRE to debate all this, former National Republican Committee communications director Cliff May, and Dee Dee Myers, who was White House press secretary during the greatest president of my lifetime. Who might that be but Bill Clinton.



NOVAK: Dee Dee Myers, apart from all the insinuations and implications in Paul’s introduction, we know that Ari just got married after the age of 40, he wants to raise a family. He never has made money in his life. He would like to make a little money.

Two and a half years at a grueling job. And really more than that. It’s four years. Is there any reason to think that there is any sinister motivation behind his leaving?

MYERS: No, I actually don’t think there is. I think that Ari left at a time of his choosing. I think that had he stayed a few months longer, he would have had to stay through the campaign, and we all know how it feels to get sucked into a campaign and you can’t get out.

So I think, you know, Ari’s had his ups and downs, he’s been sort of in and out inside the White House. But it seems to me that this is pretty much a time of his choosing and it makes perfect sense to me. And I wish him all the best.

I know from experience, and as many of you do, what working in the White House feels like. It is a very grueling job and I don’t blame him one bit for wanting to make a little money. In the public sector you don’t make very much money.

NOVAK: You made a fabulous amount of money when you left the White House, didn’t you?

MYERS: I am so loaded now, it’s unbelievable.

BEGALA: And yet you pay your fair share of taxes.

MYERS: I pay my fair share of taxes and I feel blessed to live in a nation that has treated me so well. And so I pay them happily.


BEGALA: Let me do something that you may find unusual and defend Ari Fleischer. Today, a lot of critics are going through the many factual misstatements that Ari made. But, in point of fact, I think that we need to change not the monkey, but the organ grinder.

Somebody sent him out there to say these things that were false. For example, it was George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney who said that, for example, Iraq has a nuclear weapons program. We now know for a matter of fact that they do not. Why are some blaming Ari Fleischer, when it’s the president and the vice president who misled us about a war?

CLIFF MAY, FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: Just to correct you, Khadir Hamza was the father of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program. He’s been on this program; I’ve talked to him any number of times.

There’s no question that there was a nuclear weapons program in Iraq. What we don’t know and we still don’t know is what happened to all of it. Every place we’ve gone unfortunately has been looted and burned and taken out.

BEGALA: You can’t hide a nuclear facility, though. You cannot.

MAY: Oh, you can.

BEGALA: And our president said — and I’m quoting him — (UNINTELLIGIBLE).


BEGALA: Mr. Cheney said he has in fact reconstituted nuclear weapons. That’s not Ari’s fault.

MAY: Let me explain to you how you can. For example, we know right now, and you know this as well, that Iran is building nuclear weapons. Do you know where that facility is? We don’t, because what has been done is nuclear facilities can be broken up in many components.

BEGALA: But we don’t have 150,000 troops in Iran. We know everything that’s going on in Iraq now; we own the country.

I want to get back to the question of credibility. Doesn’t our president have a credibility crisis in firing Ari or Ari leaving of his own volition? It’s not going to solve that, is it?

MAY: Only with you. Now with the American public…


MAY: You look at the American — look at — Paul, nobody reads the polls better than you do. You know that the American public overwhelmingly knows Bush is a straight shooter.

NOVAK: Nobody said that George Bush fired him. I don’t think anybody — Dee Dee Myers, Paul brought up the organ grinder and the monkey. And I’m going to give you a sound bite from one of the best monkeys I’ve ever seen. Let’s listen to him.


MIKE MCCURRY, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Don’t twist my words. Let’s making it very clear what the president has said in this statement. He said he had no improper relationship with this woman.

That clearly means there would be things that would be improper. And I think you all know what they are, and I don’t need to parse it any further.


NOVAK: That was a terrible lie and you can’t blame the monkey, a good friend of mine, your successor, Mike McCurry. But my question, Dee Dee, is how in the world can any Democrat, former White House staff members talk about lying in the White House when that was one of the great presidential lies, just a total blatant untruth?

MYERS: There’s no question that that was a lie. And I don’t defend it and I didn’t defend it then. I don’t defend it now.

And my friend, Mike McCurry was in a terribly difficult situation, which I think he handled well. But I think that Paul’s larger point, that whoever the press secretary is going to reflect the press culture, the communications culture of this White House, which is the press is a disease to be managed, not a legitimate part of the process.

And so they will never provide information from the podium of that White House briefing room. They shut down reporters. They browbeat them. They challenge them. And I have to say, it has served them in some ways, sure.

MAY: If I may, I think what Ari understands — and I think it’s important — is that the press secretary and the president are not there to feed the needs of the White House press corps. There are there to address the American people through the press corps. This is about communicating with the public, not the reporters.

MYERS: I agree with that, but this White House could do a lot better job of communicating with the American public through the press corps. There aren’t a lot of other options.

MAY: It’s a very disciplined White House. What this White House is trying to do, like the Reagan White House did — I’m not making all the associations. I know Bush is not the communicator Reagan was. But this White House has certain messages it wants to get across and doesn’t want to be distracted.

MYERS: There’s no question about it.

NOVAK: Don’t you think that the reporters — I think the reporters like Ari, as a matter of fact. I think they liked Mike McCurry. They even liked you, Dee Dee. But isn’t what they resent is this is an organized White House. There isn’t much leaking.

MYERS: No question.

NOVAK: I don’t think there was much leaking in the second half of the Clinton administration after they got rid of Paul.


MYERS: He was the one bad seed in the second half of the Clinton years. But, no, I think you’re absolutely right. I think Ari bears the brunt of the animosity that the press feels toward the strategy of this White House.

I think the press plays an important role in our national life, and I think this is where Democrats and Republicans sometimes part company. The Republicans again see the press as a disease. It’s just something that you’re stuck with. But I don’t think they even see it that way.

BEGALA: Here’s the difference. Republicans and people on the right very rightly saw that it was wrong for a man to lie about having a girlfriend. Why do you make it so difficult to see that it’s wrong for a president to lie about a war that 137,000 American heroes lost their lives in? Why is that so difficult to make that distinction?


MAY: I absolutely reject your allegation that there has been any lie told…


NOVAK: Let him answer, Paul.

MAY: Look, first of all, most Americans understand this war in Iraq was justified. I know you disagree with me.

BEGALA: By lies?

MAY: No, not by lies.


MAY: No, because this was a rogue dictator, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) terrorists building weapons of mass destruction.

NOVAK: You guys can continue off camera. We’re going to take a break.

Coming up, a quick check of the hour’s top stories, and then “Rapid Fire,” the quickest question-and-answer segment in television.

Later in “Fireback,” find out if your audience trusts White House press secretaries to tell the truth.


NOVAK: It’s time for “Rapid Fire”: short questions, short answers, no filibustering from the podium. We’re talking about White House press secretaries with Dee Dee Myers, who did that job for President Clinton, and former Republican National Committee communications director, Cliff May — Paul.

BEGALA: Cliff, was everything President Bush told Ari say to the country true?

MAY: I think to the best of his knowledge, it was, yes. Absolutely.

NOVAK: Who should replace Ari Fleischer?

MYERS: Victoria Clark, the present Pentagon spokeswoman, is fantastic.

BEGALA: Let me throw in another name. Scott McClellan, a great guy from Austin. This will kill his chances, but a great guy, a straight shooter, a young press aide in Bush’s — is he up to the job? I think he is.

MAY: I think he is and I think he definitely has a shot. I think he has a good shot. It will be somebody who works for Ari right now who will get that shot, but there are a couple of other people. Ed Gillespie comes to mind, if they’re interested in it, who will be very good for the position.

NOVAK: You were press secretary for a year and a half. Ari is press secretary for two and a half years. Is that too short a time to be a press secretary?

MYERS: I think it depends upon the individual. I was there the first two years of Clinton’s first time. Ari’s been there two and a half. And, again, once you hit a certain point, you’re in for the next two and a half years. So I certainly am sympathetic with his decision to leave, and I think it depends on the press secretary, how long seems like the right amount of time.

BEGALA: Cliff, would you take the job?

MAY: No, I’m very happy doing what I’m doing right now, thank you very much.

NOVAK: Would you ever — you’re a very young person, Dee Dee. Would you ever like to be press secretary for another president?

MYERS: You never say never. I feel like I’ve been there, done that. It doesn’t work at his point in my life. But I think it’s a great job. I would commend anyone to do it.

You will have no life. After a couple years, you’ll have a wonderful experience that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life.

BEGALA: Cliff May, 10 seconds. Any truth to the rumor this the president is looking for Mohammed Saeed al Sahaf to take the job? Baghdad…

MYERS: I think he’s perfect.

MAY: My understanding is Isuzu wants him as the next Joe Isuzu.

NOVAK: Quickly, yes or no, did you ever tell an untruth from the podium?


BEGALA: Wonderful. Cliff May, Dee Dee Myers, thank you both very much.