Tonight Ari Fleischer, President Bush’s first press secretary, was on campus to give a talk. I had the good fortune of being one of about fifteen students who had dinner with Fleischer, a Middlebury alum, before his talk.

Fleischer is certainly a kind man, and I appreciated the honest way he spoke to us students. At the dinner he made an effort to inspire us to pursue a career in politics. This at first caught me off balance. I was more interested in having a substantive conversation about the future of media and his explanation for the Iraq war than having someone try to inspire me with what I should do with my life. This man is part of one of the most important political decisions of my lifetime; I don’t want inspiration from him.

To some extent, however, I got over my skepticism of Fleischer and thought it was pretty cool to see a former midd-kid who had climbed the ladder the way he did.

The conversation generally started out being pretty uncontroversial. We talked about the state of the media and a few other issues in a straight forward manner. Towards the end of our time, however, some of my friends from College Democrats and I started getting Fleischer to talk about the buildup to the Iraq war.

To summarize, Fleischer’s explanation was basically that the intelligence (in America and in other countries) got the weapons of mass destruction thing wrong. Bush thus made the right decision with the information given to him. I tried to challenge him a little on this idea that there was a consensus in intelligence, but I’m obviously not prepared to argue with a former White House Press Secretary on facts.

Despite this, Fleischer’s description of Bush really resonated with me. I asked him about how 9/11 changed Bush’s perspective. He answered by saying that Bush’s perspective was in fact changed by 9/11 and how this was a good thing. No one wants America to be attacked on their watch, right? He then told a story about how Bush met with Ellie Weisel during the lead up to the Iraq war. Weisel, with his holocaust symbolizing power, recommended going into Iraq in order to save lives.

The critique of Bush’s character is easy. He lost his sense of perspective after 9/11 (if he ever had any) and was consumed by the idea of protecting the country. This explains torture, his general rhetoric, and Iraq.

But beyond the man himself, hearing about Bush from the inside brought home just how scary politics is. Big-time politicians almost inherently have to ascribe to great man theory. Why give up your personal life for politics if you didn’t think you could achieve greatness and influence history? In the case of more thoughtful politicians (Obama?), they may be more intellectually conservative (in a Burkean sense), but on a more personal level, I think we’d be hard-pressed to find a major politician who doesn’t have a greatness complex.

I often get annoyed by the West Wing and movies like W. They make politics and all these processes so personal, moving away from policy debates. But there’s truth in their overall message. These decisions aren’t made by an amorphous and rational entity, the government. People (who are often former frat boys with great man complexes) make these decisions.

Obviously Bush is an extreme example, and it’s realistic to hope for better decision-makers with more of a sense of perspective. But can we hope for what we really need in a leader: an understanding of the limits of what that leader can accomplish? My fear is that the political process inherently gives us philosophically arrogant leaders–people like John McCain who boast about making quick decisions and not looking back on them.

I’m certainly grateful we have Obama. He seems to be cautious, to try to make rational choices. But he still wields the power to make ridiculously important decisions. Let’s hope this doesn’t get to his head.

3 thoughts on “My Dinner with Ari Fleischer

  1. George,It's pretty astute to wish that politicians would know their limits. Richard Neustadt, probably one of the best presidential scholars (and Prof. Dickinson's thesis advisor) wrote in Presidential Power that the most effective presidents are those who know the limits of their power.Also, I think you might have glazed over the fact that Bush became obsessed with security. This is something that I think mitigates the harm he did. I think it is, in a sense, a very rational reaction. From reading books like Jack Goldsmith's about what it was like to be in the White House during that period, I've come to understand that they were getting the most frightful intelligence briefings of his presidency (I'm speaking of the run-up to Iraq), and there was widespread concern that they would be blamed (possibly indicted) for failure to prevent future attacks. I simply think we should acknowledge the rationality of this behavior. I do think he should have marshaled that sentiment into more judicious policy considerations, though.

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