Had President George W. Bush received accurate information about Saddam Hussein's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, he probably would not have ordered an invasion of Iraq, former presidential Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told an audience in Ketchum last Thursday.
Fleischer, who served in the Bush administration from January 2001 to July 2003, spoke at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood as part of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts' Lecture Series.
"We were unequivocally told by the CIA that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons," he said. "The CIA made its best estimates. [But] it was a mistake. We got it wrong."
Fleischer said he was brought up in a liberal Democratic household, but was disillusioned by the administration of President Jimmy Carter and was impressed by the optimism of his successor, President Ronald Reagan. He switched his allegiance to the Republican Party in 1982 at about the time he graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont.
"My parents to this day remain proud, principled Democrats," he said, "who were and still are horrified that I went to work for President George Bush. My mother said [in an interview] that she hoped that this was a phase that I was going through, and she hoped I would grow out of it."
Fleischer focused most of his talk on current politics, but addressed his experiences as press secretary during a lengthy question-and-answer period.
He called Wikileaks' recent decision to put secret documents on the Internet "awful," but said he had had a good relationship with the press in regard to classified information.
"The press will work with you," he said. "If there are things that will harm the country, they won't print it."
He also acknowledged that "probably too many things are classified."
Fleischer said he didn't agree with quite all of Bush's positions, but generally only voiced his opinion on matters of communications.
"It was easy to do that with President Bush," he said.
He said he told Bush that his now notorious challenge to anyone who sought to attack U.S. forces—"Bring them on"—hadn't sounded very good. He said Bush told him that he was just expressing his pride in the U.S. military.
"Mr. President, it didn't come across that way," Fleischer said he told Bush.
Fleischer said Bush didn't quite say, "You're right," but he never made that statement again.
He also said he suggested to Bush that issues involving terrorism might not be as black and white as Bush had been portraying them. However, he said, Bush didn't change his message.
"He saw his job as president to speak in moral clarity," Fleischer said.
Fleischer called the 2010 congressional elections a "major tectonic swing."
"The powerful coalition that President Obama had assembled vanished," he said.
He contended that the shift toward conservative candidates had been prompted by "spending fatigue" on the part of voters.
He said that so far, Obama has shown a disappointing lack of leadership on budget matters. He said he remains unsure whether Obama is just waiting for the Republicans to make a major mistake, or for a good opportunity to break with Democrats and forge agreements with the opposition.
"I fear the former more than I hope for the latter," he said.
Fleischer said he had never seen such a "wide-open field" as now exists among prospective Republican presidential candidates. However, he said he did not include Sarah Palin among those who have a reasonable shot at getting elected.
"I cannot see any way, shape or form that she can win the Republican primary," he said.
Asked what characteristic he considers most important in a president, Fleischer said, "It's nebulous, but it's leadership."
He said so many issues that a president must grapple with come down to a 51-to-49 toss-up. But, he said, "You have to do your best, make the hard calls and then lead."
Greg Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org