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Behind the Headlines: Bush’s Man Fleischer Sees His Task Rooted in Jewish Ethics

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It’s rare that the spokesman for a presidential campaign defends one of his opponents, but Ari Fleischer did just that this summer.

Days after being named vice presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D- Conn.) was maligned with an anti-Semitic comment by a local leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Republican candidate George W. Bush’s camp could have said nothing or sufficed with a brief statement. But Fleischer, as a fellow Jew, felt he needed to speak out.

And he did, condemning the words of the president of the Dallas chapter of the NAACP, Lee Alcorn, as “foolish utterances.”

But don’t misunderstand Fleischer. He is a very political person, and his religion rarely gets the best of his partisanship.

“I believe deeply in my religion and I believe in the principles of my party,” said Fleischer, 40. “I don’t commingle the two.”

The son of New York Democrats, Fleischer has spent two decades on Capitol Hill as a Republican party spokesman, and will reach the pinnacle of his profession later this month when he stands in front of the lectern as White House press secretary.

A “relatively observant, basically Reform” Jew, Fleischer’s conception of his role in government is shaped by the ethics of Judaism.

“The Jewish religion teaches people to be responsible, to be open-minded and to care about others,” he said in a phone interview with JTA. “And I hope that people see that in me as I do my job.”

Jews were heavily represented in the Clinton Cabinet and White House, but Fleischer will be one of the few Jewish faces in a Bush administration that received little support from Jews at the polls. Less than 20 percent of the Jewish vote went to Bush.

Other Jews in the Bush White House will be Josh Bolten, Bush’s designated deputy chief of staff for policy, and, perhaps, Stephen Goldsmith, the former Indianapolis mayor and Bush adviser who is expected to be tapped for a position soon.

Many in the Jewish community also have been critical of some of Bush’s policies, especially on school vouchers and charitable choice. Some are opposing Cabinet appointments, especially the attorney general-designate, former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft.

But Fleischer isn’t ruffled by his minority status, having grown accustomed to fending off the Jewish Democratic majority in his own home.

Though their son was in the upper echelons of the Bush campaign, Fleischer’s parents still voted for Vice President Al Gore.

“My mother called me to concede only after Al Gore called George W. Bush to concede,” Fleischer said.

Although they were in opposing camps, Fleischer was happy when Lieberman became the first Jew picked for a national ticket.

“It really gave me great joy when Lieberman was announced,” he said. “As a Jew, it gave me a sense of great pride. It reflected on the strength of the country.”

Fleischer’s rebellion against his political upbringing began at Middlebury College in Vermont in the late 1970s, when he realized that he agreed more with the policies of Ronald Reagan than of Jimmy Carter. After graduating, he took a job as spokesman for a New York Republican running for Congress, and then moved to Washington with a new party identity.

Despite their opposing views, Fleischer calls his parents his “secret weapon,” who have taught him how Democrats think and feel on the issues.

“It teaches you respect,” he said. “You can have political differences and still love them.”

Fleischer even claims to respect the White House press corps, the aggressive pack of reporters with whom he’ll face each day.

He already knows their business from his time as a spokesman for former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and the House Ways and Means Committee.

One reporter who covered Fleischer with the Ways and Means Committee, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Fleischer deals better with politics than policy, and has trouble making the switch.

“I think that he never learned when it is time to get out of the partisan campaign mode and get into the business of supplying reporters necessary factual information,” the reporter said. “I think he sees the press as a group to manipulate.”

But Fleischer says he relishes his job because he plays a role, albeit minor, in implementing policy, he said, adding that he clearly understands that he has to serve two masters — the president and the media.

“You can’t do this job if you don’t believe in the mission of the press,” he said.

Fleischer’s current schedule includes a morning news conference call, an early afternoon news conference and a late afternoon “pen-and-pad” session. Then there are the dozens of individual requests he responds to each day, from reporters at small newspapers to Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes.”

Even in his serious conversations with the media, Fleischer manages to keep things jovial. At a news conference Tuesday, he offered one female reporter the chance to go head to head with Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a former Navy Seal and professional wrestler.

In a conference call, he allows a reporter who graduated from his alma mater to get two questions.

And then there is his trademark, ear-to-ear smile.

“I would like to thank whoever sent me `The Idiot’s Guide to Verbal Self- Defense,'” Fleischer, smiling broadly, said in front of reporters Wednesday.

Fleischer already has picked the chapter that will give him the edge with the press: “Using Your Facial Muscles to Gain the Advantage.”

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