NEW YORK -- Ari Fleischer grew up in Pound Ridge, N.Y., where being middle class means you have only a couple of horses, and he would like to go back there. But you can't make it in that part of Westchester County on the salary of a mere press secretary to the president of the United States. One hundred and forty thousand dollars a year gets you only about as far as White Plains.
So, as he announced that his heart told him it was time to leave President Bush and a government salary, Fleischer also said he would be staying in Washington for a couple of years.
He hopes, he said, to spend more time with his new wife and make ends meet with some paid lecturing and a memoir of his White House years.
It happened that the day after Fleischer announced his resignation to a White House press corps that will not mourn his departure -- one British correspondent commented that he provided a low-protein diet of information -- a couple of White House memoirists were talking about that very trade at a program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. David Gergen, who served four presidents, argued that a manservant should never tell all. Sidney Blumenthal, bodyguard to the Clintons, added that he wanted to tell all and then some about his employers' enemies -- and his own, too.
As Blumenthal threw his lefts and rights, mostly lefts, Gergen merely said, "If people pull their punches, that's just fine with me." I'm sure he meant that; he is a very decent man. However, I do remember that he demonstrated knowledge of a thing or two about White House infighting and the use of elbows when he served presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. Gergen, in fact, knew enough about leaking to make many lists of who might have been "Deep Throat," the mysterious Watergate source of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
In some ways, the star of the memoir program, sponsored by the PEN American Center, never served in the White House. Historian William Leuchtenburg offered an overview of the kiss-and-tell business, beginning with the rather distressing news that Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson not only had many nasty things to say about his rival, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, but he also wrote that he suspected his patron, President Washington, was getting senile at the end of his second term.
Oh, dear. What is new, and oh so modern, said Leuchtenberg, is that in the good old days associates and assistants to presidents did not publish until their man was out of office, and usually waited until the president published his own memoirs. No more. Now government service produces celebrity, and celebrity is the coin of the realm.
Fleischer, like many before him, including several presidents, can use a memoir and lectures to collect the deferred compensation that now comes with "public service." Gen. Colin Powell made $27 million with a book and lecture fees before coming back into government. Fleischer is not worth that much, but in a year or two he should have enough to get a place in Pound Ridge.
One of the first to break the old informal rules was Emmet Hughes, a speechwriter for Dwight Eisenhower. Then came: Gerald Ford's press secretary, Jerald ter Horst; Ronald Reagan's budget director, David Stockman; and his press secretary, Larry Speakes; and his chief of staff, Donald Regan. Bill Clinton was blindsided by his boy wonder, George Stephanopoulos, and his old friend, Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.
From that crew we "learned" that Ike was dumb, Ford a Nixon lackey, Reagan a phony conservative whose press secretary made up his quotes and who took orders from his wife's astrologer, and that Clinton was a phony liberal.
Monica Crowley, who wrote two memoirs of working for former president Richard Nixon, added: "Well, they all assume everyone around them is taking notes and will publish one day. ... I took out a yellow pad whenever Mr. Nixon talked to me."
Of course they know. But they may not like it. Stephanopoulos and Clinton were in the same Manhattan restaurant, a publishing hangout called Michael's, for lunch the other day, and studiously pretended not to see each other for an hour before Stephanopoulos got up and walked over to the former president's table. The former coat-holder was back in his own seat in about 30 seconds.
I don't think anything like that will happen between Fleischer and President Bush. It's hard to imagine that the press secretary knows much about his boss -- if he did, he certainly never let on. And there are no publishing hangouts in Crawford, Texas.
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