Ari Fleischer's announcement this past week that he will resign as President Bush's press secretary was greeted by many media as an extraordinary event, unexpected and worthy of page-one news.
But Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University and scholar on the curious, often antagonistic, relationship between the White House and the press who cover it, says no press secretary can last for long, especially in an age of 24-hour cable news and instant analysis.
Kumar has studied the art of presidential communications for years, and two years ago, she wrote the White House 2002 Project, a 600-page briefing book for the incoming administration. Her study of the Bush administration's communications strategy will be published next month in Presidential Studies Quarterly.
When Fleischer announced his intentions to leave, were you surprised?
No. I think the job of press secretary is very wearing, almost more so than any other White House job. The press secretary has one boss but three constituents. The first is the president and making sure you are reflecting what he wants to say and how he wants it said. The other is the White House staff. He takes on the role of representation that we don't see. It's one of persuasion, where he is talking with people about information the press wants released, but which they may not want to release. The third constituent is the press corps. There is enormous pressure. Other people can simply not call back a reporter, but a press secretary can't do that.
For a senior staff person, two years is about right for them because of the volume of work they have to deal with, the range of topics and the gravity of mistakes. You can't be error-free, but you must be, as much as possible.
Whom would you expect to replace him?
If you look at the rhythms of other administrations, it's usually the deputy, or someone else who has been an information officer in the administration. You don't want to hire someone from the outside who has to learn what to do. You want someone who knows the needs of the press.
It will probably be someone like Scott McClellan, the deputy press secretary and who is well known within the Bush circle, or Victoria Clarke (Pentagon spokeswoman).
You write that the effectiveness of the press secretary must be measured by what the president wants in a communications operation. Using that as the yardstick, how would you rate Fleischer?
He is a reflection of the president. Fleischer reflected the president and his thinking. It was frustrating to reporters because they wanted more information, but the way he handled that job was very much what the president wanted. I think Bush thinks he served him quite well.
Pierre Salinger was more than President Kennedy's press secretary; he was also part of the inner circle. Ari Fleischer was a messenger. Is it important that the press secretary be part of the decision-making process?
Today, a press secretary really can't be involved in policy. He has time for little else than gathering information and relaying it. Before, you didn't have cable television. A press secretary really has to spend his whole day meeting the needs of the press.
From your writing, one gets the impression that the objective of the White House is not to inform or provide insight as much as it is to sell, much like Procter & Gamble selling Tide. Is that a fair assessment?
I'd prefer to say that White House information is geared toward persuasion. It is interested in providing information that is going to best persuade the public or the particular audience to do what they want them to do. That is true every White House, but most are not as controlled, as much as this one is. Reporters would press Fleischer on a point, but he would not back off. He said only what the White House wanted him to say.
The Bush White House says it wants to "give the press one thing to cover" each day. Is the Washington press corps being too passive, or abdicating its responsibilities?
That doesn't mean that's the only thing the press will write about. One of the developments in American politics is the enormous proliferation of special interest groups, particularly with the Internet. There are ways of getting a story. It doesn't mean you can't get a story, but it makes the process more difficult.
I don't think the press corps is passive. One of its responsibilities is to cover what the White House is doing, in its words. The public wants to know, "What does the president think?"
How would you assess the president's relationship with the White House press?
Presidents generally regard their dealings with the press as a root canal. They don't appreciate their relationships. There is a tendency to blame all sorts of things on the press. [Still], communication is central to leadership. In that way, President Bush does recognize the need of communication, and he puts time into it.
What, if anything, would you advise the White House to change in its dealings with the press?
I don't advise. I just study them. I look at them from the outside.
What serves the White House well is to know what are the basic elements to the relationships. Those are more important than who the individuals are. The White House needs the press, because the president needs the press to govern. And news organizations need the president, because he is central to the concept of news to newspaper readers and television viewers.
The press have to find out and present on a regular basis what the public wants to know about. It's an institutional relationship, not a personal relationship.