Ari Fleischer arrived on the national stage as the first White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, serving in that role until mid-2003. These days, he lives in Westchester County and is focused on another area where top-notch communications advice comes in handy: sports. While consulting through his company, Ari Fleischer Sports Communications, he also keeps a hand in politics with regular appearances on CNN. He also helped author a recent Republican National Committee “autopsy” report on how the political party can compete with the Democrats in the wake of its poor performance in the 2012 elections.
City & State’s Jon Lentz spoke with Fleischer about Gov. Andrew Cuomo, weapons of mass destruction and why working in the White House wasn’t exactly like an episode of The West Wing.
The following is an edited transcript.
City & State: You now work in sports communications, representing top athletes, teams and leagues. How is it different from and similar to being a White House press secretary?
Ari Fleischer: It’s surprisingly similar. If you think about it, the only two institutions in our society that are covered live, and have sections of the newspaper dedicated to themselves, are the White House and America’s elite sports organizations. And they also both have very passionate and noisy constituents/fans. And to give you a recent example, think about what just happened at Rutgers with its basketball coach. Think about the news that’s generated—the immediacy, the immediate pressure—will someone resign, will someone get fired, did you only do it because of bad publicity, now the faculty wants the president fired—these are the same feeding frenzies that often took place in the political world.
C&S: Your company’s website notes that the press has become more adversarial in its sports coverage. Is it too adversarial?
AF: I think the media in general is too adversarial. I think it’s a reflection of the speed of communications, the demand to get to the bottom of everything instantly. The old art of being more thoughtful and deliberative, taking time, is a lost art. Twitter, the immediacy of cable news, everything has led to a crushing burden on reporters to get it first, get it fast, and get it right—typically in that order.
C&S: Yankees or Mets?
AF: A huge Yankees fan.
C&S: How do you keep up with government and political news?
AF: It’s just natural. You can’t have done what I did and always be interested, and I will always be interested. I still get The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal delivered the old-fashioned way on my driveway, hard copy. I’m online and reading a ton of things. I’m a CNN contributor, so I’m on a show two days a week. It’s just in me. It’s who I am. It no longer drives. What drives me now is my family and my private sector business.
C&S: What do you think about Andrew Cuomo, both as a governor and as a potential presidential candidate?
AF: I’m very low on Cuomo. I think he is a classic Northeastern liberal. He did a double deal on taxes. He said he would pass temporary tax hikes. He’s made them permanent. That’s my personal view. My analyst view is that if Hillary doesn’t run, the Democrats have to take Gov. Cuomo seriously. He’d be a formidable Democrat in a primary. I’d love to have him in the general.
C&S: Do you think New York could elect a Republican governor?
AF: It’s a long shot in New York, because of the massive voter registration advantage the Democrats have, but I don’t rule it out, especially with the corruption that’s taking place, which, sadly, involves both parties. That’s a reference to New York City, of course. It’s events like that that can create a backlash for a reformist candidate, but it’s a long shot in New York State.
C&S: What do you think about Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who is your county executive?
AF: I know Rob well, and I’m very high on Rob. It’s amazing he won that county executive race because of Westchester’s couple of a decade long trend of going Democratic. And Rob is smart and able and he’s a breath of fresh air in a land of tax increases. In New York State, like Illinois and California, the answer to everything is to raise taxes. Rob is pushing in a different direction, and he’s a moderate leader who understands how growth benefits one and all, and that you can’t just keep raising taxes to solve our problems. It puts us on the course of Illinois and California. When you look across the country, the 10 states with the lowest unemployment, eight of them have Republican governors, and there really is this big gap between the tax hiking approach and the low taxes, high growth approach. There’s a true ideological split, and I’m afraid the big former industrial states like California, Illinois and New York are all on the wrong side of history.
C&S: There has been a lot of discussion about what the Republican Party needs to do to stay relevant after the 2012 elections. Do you think anything needs to change?
AF: Yes, it does. I was one of the authors of the report that came out of the Republican National Committee about what we need to do for our future, and I wrote the section on messages, which is really what laid it out about how Republicans lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Unlike George Bush, who got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote when he ran in 2004, Mitt Romney had 27 percent. Republicans are on a national path to never again winning the White House if we can’t make a greater, better appeal to nonwhite communities. Republicans must do better with the black community, with the Hispanic community, with the gay community. I’m on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and that’s an instructive group, because in 1992, Bush’s father got only 11 percent of the Jewish vote on his way to defeat to Bill Clinton. In 2012, Mitt Romney got 30 percent of the Jewish vote. If Republicans can do in the Hispanic community and the black community what they’ve done in the Jewish community, i.e., make inroads, Democrats will never again win the White House. Politics is not always about winning a majority; it’s about making inroads in the other team’s camp. And that adds up to give you a majority, especially with the Republican’s massive advantage among voters. I do think the Republicans have to make conservatism more welcoming, more inclusive. We have to stop sending foolish signals that we don’t like people or want people in this country, and we have to remember that there are many who struggle, who are lower income and who want nothing more than to become middle income. Republicans have to help them make that dream come true.
C&S: Do any TV shows do a good job of representing life in the White House? The West Wing? House of Cards?
AF: It’s funny. I would watch The West Wing because so many people would ask me that. The last thing I wanted to do when I got home from the White House at 10 o’clock was watch The West Wing, before I got up at five o’clock to return there. Those shows are all drama and hype and excitement, and sometimes the White House is drama and hype and excitement, but not always. So the other thing I get a kick out of is in the TV shows, everybody on the show is very witty and very clever. And I assure you that was not the case for the White House.
C&S: Do you have any regrets that the Bush administration got it wrong on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
AF: Of course I do. I’ve gone back and thought about that many times. And it changed everything. It’s the biggest reason President Bush left office unpopular. And of course it led to war. On the other hand, we in the Bush administration faithfully and accurately told the American people what we were told by the CIA. What we said was identical to what Bill Clinton said, what Al Gore said, what John Kerry said, what Hillary Clinton said. When I look back and I hear people say that George Bush lied, it makes me very sad, because the liar was Saddam Hussein, and I only wish that Bush critics would criticize Saddam Hussein instead of George Bush. Hussein lied, not Bush.
C&S: How did you get interested in politics? Did you grow up in a political family?
AF: I grew up in a very political family. I stuffed more envelopes than any child should on behalf of the Democratic Party. My parents were activist Democrats in our town in Westchester growing up, and we talked politics a lot. I was raised in a household to believe that Republicans are evil. I went to Middlebury [College] in Vermont, and when I got to Middlebury in 1978, [I was] a proud liberal Democrat—and because of Jimmy Carter I graduated four years later a proud conservative Democrat. And then really I fell in love with Ronald Reagan. His sense of optimism and patriotism in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era was very attractive. So I changed parties six months after I graduated from college—which also, by the way, makes me the only person in the history of the state of Vermont to enter it a liberal and leave it a conservative. So that’s how I was raised. I was raised in very Democratic home. I think, frankly, it’s helped me, because I don’t take politics personal[ly]. If you’re raised as a Democrat and become a Republican, you have to respect the other side. That’s my family. I also think there’s an advantage, at least the way I try to look at myself, in that I have the heart of a liberal and the mind of a conservative. What I said about the number of Americans who are struggling in this economy, and have been struggling for a long time, it’s in large part informed by my being raised as a Democrat. You see these things, and identify with things, and want to help solve these problems. That’s what I mean by the heart of a liberal. But I’m convinced that extreme redistribution of income won’t solve those problems. Frankly, the biggest contributor to poverty and to trapping people behind is the breakdown of the family.