PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 3 (JTA) — What’s a nice Jewish son of New York Democrats doing as the most visible spokesman of the Bush campaign?
“You can thank Jimmy Carter for making me leave the Democratic Party, and Ronald Reagan for making me a Republican,” said Ari Fleischer, the 39-year-old senior communications adviser and spokesman for the George W. Bush campaign.
Speaking on his way to a news conference Thursday, the day his boss was crowned king of the Republican Party, Fleischer said it was during his college years — at Middlebury College in Vermont — that he started to shift his political thinking.
Those were the years — the late 1970s — when Iranian revolutionaries held Americans hostage and Afghanistan became the latest battleground of the Cold War.
“The notion of a nuclear freeze didn’t make sense to me,” he said, citing just one of Carter’s policies with which he disagreed.
Still a registered Democrat, Fleischer’s first job out of college was working on the political campaign of a New York Republican running for the U.S. Congress.
After that, he was offered a job on Capitol Hill — again working for a Republican — and his political conversion was complete.
“My parents were shocked,” he recalled. “They are proud Democrats.”
But, he said, his parents still talk to him — they even discuss politics, though he never tries to persuade them to follow his footsteps.
They even came to Philadelphia — “as good strong Democrats” — to join in the festivities surrounding the Republican National Convention.
The man who has emerged as one of the most oft-quoted individuals in the Bush campaign worked on Capitol Hill for nearly two decades for a variety of lawmakers, including Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Bill Archer (R- Texas).
He left Archer’s staff to join Elizabeth Dole’s presidential campaign. When her campaign foundered last fall, he left, and reportedly was courted immediately by Bush’s staff.
After some hesitation — during which time he reportedly negotiated with Microsoft Corp. to become its Washington spokesman — he signed on with Bush in November.
One of the first things Fleischer did when he moved to Austin, Texas, the headquarters of the Bush campaign, was to join the local Jewish community center to work out.
He describes his Jewish background as “relatively observant, basically Reform,” and says that being Jewish is a “big part of my life.”
The fact that he and other Jews play a prominent role in the campaign, he said, shows that Bush is a “wonderfully inclusive man” who “doesn’t judge people by what group they belong to.”
He knows that most Jews vote Democratic, and that many Jews are troubled by the conservative stances in the party platform on issues such as abortion and gun control.
The goal of Bush’s Republican Party, he said, “is to show it’s inclusive.”
The governor’s recent proclamation of “Jesus Day,” which drew criticism in the Jewish community, should not worry Jews so much, Fleischer said.
“I’ve also read the governor’s proclamations on behalf of the Lubavitcher rebbe” and other Jewish causes, he said. “Proclamations are appropriate ways to commemorate important moments in the lives of your constituents.”
Jews instead, he suggested, should focus on Bush’s record in improving education and welfare reform.
“I hope that we can make an increasing number of American Jews open their eyes and reconsider their vote,” he said, adding, “It’s in the best interest of the Jewish community and of the Republican Party to reach toward each other.”
As for his own political future, Fleischer evades the question about whether he would like a position in the administration if Bush wins.
“One step at a time,” he said.
Is he optimistic? “We’re going to work very hard at winning,” he said. “It sure feels good now.”