At the Associated’s annual Keynote Event last night, Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, only alluded sparingly to President-elect Donald Trump.
But when prodded by an audience member if he would offer any advice to the incoming administration’s yet-to-be-appointed press secretary, Fleischer couldn’t resist flashing a mischievous grin.
“Well, whoever it is is gonna have one fun job,” he said to gales of laughter. “And I’m glad it’s not going to be me.”
More than 400 supporters of the Associated attended the Keynote, which was held on Dec. 8th at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore Inner Harbor. The Keynote honors donors who contribute a $1,000 minimum gift to the annual campaign of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
The gala was co-chaired and hosted by Jamie and Marc Cohen, with remarks delivered by 2017 Annual Campaign Chair John Shmerler. M&T Bank was honored by Associated President Marc B. Terrill for its support of the federation over the past decade.
In his talk, Fleischer, 56, who recently met with Trump officials to offer support and advice, spoke mostly of his years serving in the Bush administration from 2001-2003.
“I can’t tell you how much I loved that job,” he said. “It was the most action-packed, exciting job I’ve ever had, and at the same time the most grinding, stressful job. … My desk was 30 feet from the Oval Office and 30 feet from the Briefing Room. I sat in the middle and couldn’t wait to begin my duties.”
Fleischer recalled traveling around the world with the former president and his staff, as well as meeting such luminaries as the late Pope John Paul II, the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and even basketball great Shaquille O’Neal.
He also remembered being with Bush in Sarasota, Fla., on Sept. 11, 2001, when the president learned about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Fleischer said he spent most of that day holed up with the president and taking notes for posterity.
Three days later, he traveled with Bush to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan to meet with loved ones of the victims, most of whom were still desperately hoping that their family members or friends might have survived the attacks.
“What I’ve learned is how the fabric of our nation still connects us,” Fleischer said. “Yes, we live in divided times, but how quickly we reconnect because we’re Americans.
“In the days after [9/11], there was no talk of being Democrats or Republicans, just of being Americans,” he said. “You see this when you are in service to your country.”
Fleischer recalled that Rosh Hashanah fell only a little more than a week after 9/11. He said he received a special dispensation from his rabbi to work on Rosh Hashanah because of the nation’s precariousness, but Fleischer noted that he attended morning Rosh Hashanah services before going to work.
After the media briefing that day, Fleischer said reporters asked him where he was that morning. “It felt so good to say those words on national TV, that I was in synagogue,” he said. “No matter who we are, remember that we are Jews. We are fortunate to live in a country where we can be free and prosperous and help those in need and practice our religion.”
Left Vermont A Conservative
A native of Pound Ridge, N.Y., Fleischer noted that his mother, Martha, was a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant who came to the United States in 1939 and lost most of her family in the Holocaust. He said being raised Jewish had a profound impact on his life and career.
“I once asked my mother why she identified as a Jew and not as a Hungarian,” Fleischer said. “She said it was because in her country, she wasn’t allowed to think of herself as a Hungarian but as a Jew. These are the common bonds that unite the Jewish people and the lessons of what it means to be a Jew.
“Despite the disagreements in our community, we’re all Jews and we all remain vulnerable. The Jewish community stands together and helps out. We advance a proud sense of Jewish identity.”
Fleischer said he was raised in a family of liberal Democrats. A graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, he said he entered school a liberal and came out a conservative. “Thanks to Jimmy Carter, I graduated as a conservative Republican,” he said. “I’m the only person to ever enter Vermont as a liberal and leave a conservative.”
Fleischer joined Bush’s presidential campaign during the 2000 election season. He immediately struck up an easy rapport with the then-Texas governor. “George Bush, who has issues with the English language, dubbed me, ‘Ari-Bob Fleischer,’” he said.
As press secretary, Fleischer said his job was “simple” – to speak on behalf of the president. “it was not my place to insert my own views,” he said. “But every central moment of every day on that podium, I was proud to Jewish and be the voice of the president of the United States. It meant so much to me then, and it does now.”
On many occasions abroad, Fleischer said he observed Bush push back when European leaders frequently urged him to coerce Israel into making concessions to its Arab foes. In particular, he recalled then-Secretary of State Colin Powell calling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in the wake of 9/11, and urging his regime to forge a lasting peace accord with Israel.
“Instead, there were celebrations in the streets of Ramallah,” Fleischer said. “And today, the notion of a peace deal is a nostalgic thing. These are rough times in the Middle East. When are they not? But the situation continues to deteriorate and is getting worse. Given the events and lack of leadership, [Middle East peace] is far away now.
“But every nation that has tried to make peace with Israel has found a willing partner,” he said. “The question is not what Israel will do for peace, but what will the Arabs do to achieve peace. Israel doesn’t have a partner to make peace. For peace to occur, it will take a Palestinian leader to emerge who is strong enough to make peace. Israel will sacrifice land and make the tough calls for peace.”
Fleischer said the Middle East is currently experiencing a “rare moment” in that Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are more concerned about Iran than Israel.
“Behind the scenes, they are accepting the help of Israel, so there’s a shift, a swinging hinge, in the Middle East right now,” he said.
Trump and Israel
Fleischer said he hopes Trump will recognize this opportunity and advance the cause of peace in the Middle East. “If America doesn’t lead and help the parties go in the right direction, it will only help the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah and Russia,” he said.
Fleischer, who publicly rescinded his endorsement of Trump shortly before the election, said the jury is still out on the president-elect and his positions on the Middle East.
“Donald Trump said he wanted to be neutral [on the Middle East]. He said it once, and it caused a lot of concern in the pro-Israel community,” Fleischer said. “My take on him is that he tries to move the goalposts on everything. But I think he’ll be positive toward Israel.”
Fleischer partially attributed Trump’s victory to the media. “Polls show that the media has lost the American people,” he said. “Donald Trump is hostile with the press, but he sure does know how to work through the mainstream media. It’s going to be fascinating to watch this clash with strains we’ve never seen before, because Trump enjoys it and the media has brought it on itself.”
Regarding Trump’s aversion to actor Alec Baldwin’s unflattering portrayal of him on “Saturday Night Live,” Fleischer advised the president-elect to take a page out of the Bush handbook and learn how to laugh at others poking fun at you.
“Bush really had a great sense of humor about himself,” he said, alluding to comedian Dana Carvey’s portrayal of him. “To do politics all day long, you need thick skin and a good sense of humor. That’s really important.”
At the end of his talk, Fleischer received a standing ovation from the Associated audience and joked, “I can assure you that the White House press corps never reacted to me like that.”
Top Photo of Ari Fleischer at the Associated Keynote event by Carl Schmidt of Federal Hill Photography, LLC
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