Former Bush spokesman charms audience at JCCSF

During a stop last week in San Francisco, Ari Fleischer demonstrated the boyish charm, quick wit and glib partisan rhetoric that alternatively bewitched and bedeviled the press corps during his tenure as President Bush’s press secretary.

One thing was abundantly clear during the Oct. 26 talk, which was held at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. The former press secretary won’t join the growing cavalcade of disgruntled former Bush employees any time soon.

Fleischer spoke in almost reverential terms about his former boss. Fleischer said that the impetus for Bush’s steadfast support of Israel may have originated with a 1998 helicopter trip he took over the Jewish state while he was still Texas governor. Commenting on the narrow 11-mile width of the state, Bush quipped to his host Ariel Sharon: “We have driveways longer than that in Texas.”

According to Fleischer, it was the sense of Israel’s geographic vulnerability, combined with the president’s intense personal dislike for former Palesintian leader Yasser Arafat, that produced such a pro-Israel stance.

Throughout the talk, which was jointly sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, Fleischer painted the president as a man guided by convictions, surrounded by politicians swimming in a sea of moral relativism.

“I’m very troubled by what I see in the grassroots of the Democratic Party,” Fleischer said. “While the leadership of the Democratic Party is solidly behind Israel, many of the grassroots elements of the party remain neutral when it comes to taking sides with Israel or terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

“President Bush was often pressured to put pressure on Israel, but he never wavered,” Fleischer commented, adding that Bush succeeded in making sure that Arafat was persona non grata throughout the Capitol.

Perhaps Fleischer’s hagiography of the president reached an apotheosis when he mused on Bush’s eventual legacy.

“I believe that one day President Bush will be viewed by the Arab Middle East the same way Ronald Reagan was by Eastern Europe,” Fleischer said, nimbly avoiding any pessimistic takes on Iraq that has characterized much of the conflict’s recent coverage.

Prompted by an audience question about the “lock step” liberal media, Fleischer touched on media coverage of the Bush administration, saying that Washington journalists are overwhelmingly Democrats. He recalled polling 12 media interns after the 1996 election, asking for a show of hands if they voted for Clinton. Eleven hands went up. He then asked the lone person who hadn’t raised his hand: “So we have only one vote for Dole?”

“Hell no,” the response came. “I voted for Nader.”

For someone whose hallmark was evasiveness, Fleischer flashed an abundance of wit — often tinged by the warmth of a “nice Jewish boy” who somehow found himself walking down the highest corridors of power. At one point, Fleischer reminisced about awe-inspired meetings with two leaders of large religions accustomed to receiving edicts from a higher power: the pope and New York Yankees manager Joe Torre.

And, although Fleischer was adamant that his religious faith rarely played a role in public discourse, he did allow that he got a charge out of being a Jew who was broadcast continually on al-Jazeera.

The capacity crowd — which seemed to be evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans — responded warmly to the former press secretary, especially when he addressed his family’s firmly Democratic political allegiances.

Fleischer mentioned that his small hometown newspaper had interviewed his ardently Democratic father about his son’s political preference shortly after Fleischer left his post.

“Well, it’s better than being a drug dealer.” Fleischer’s father said. “But not by much.”