IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Ari Fleischer’s life in the hot seat

In "Taking Heat,"  the former White House press secretary recalls his days as the President’s spokesperson. Here’s an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

Throughout the contentious 2000 election, the aftermath of September 11th and buildup to the war in Iraq, former White House press secretary Ari Fleisher was by the president’s side. As a trusted advisor he was the voice of the Bush administration during these difficult times — fielding questions during the White House daily briefings and bringing the president's message into living rooms around the world. In "Taking Heat" Fleischer provides a glimpse of life inside the West Wing and the communications strategies for dealing with the Washington press corps. Ari Fleischer was invited on the “Today” show to talk about his new book. Here's an excerpt:

The President's armored limousine turned onto New York City's Forty-second Street. Moments earlier, President Bush had hugged the last of some two hundred widows and widowers to be at the Jacob Javits Center in midtown Manhattan. On September 14, 2001, Forty-second Street could have been Main Street in any midwestern community or a small southern town. The street was lined ten deep on both sides with people holding signs reading "God Bless America" and "God Save the U.S." But this was New York City, the place where I was born and where my father commuted almost every day of his working life. It was Ground Zero, the place where America had been attacked seventy-two hours earlier. The city is not known for its outward displays of faith, but on September 14, New York City was a quiet, pious place.

During my two and a half years as the press secretary in the White House, no day was tougher than September 14. The attack of September 11 fell like a blow. My day was consumed with reacting to it, wondering how it could have happened, and learning what we were going to do about it. The suffering was tremendous, but it was somehow distant. It was on TV, on the phone, outside the so-called bubble that shields the President and the entourage around him. September 14 brought it home.

The President was scheduled for a thirty-five-minute meeting with a group of family members whose loved ones were still "missing" at the World Trade Center site. Instead, the meeting lasted almost two hours, as he walked around the room, hugging and consoling every grieving person there.

A New York City police officer came up to him with his niece in his arms and a picture in his hand. The child, who looked like she was six years old, pointed to the picture of firefighters. The man she pointed to, the cop explained, was her father, his brother. He was missing at Ground Zero, and the little girl wanted to know if the President could help her find him.

Family after family presented the President with pictures of their missing loved ones. There wasn't a person in that room who thought his or her missing wife, husband, son, or daughter wouldn't get out alive. Despite their hopes, nearly everyone in the room, President Bush included, had tears in his or her eyes. The Secret Service, which usually form a protective phalanx around the President so no one can get very close for very long, stood back. They understood the solemnity of the scene before them. I wouldn't have been surprised if there were agents with tears in their eyes.

One woman approached the President with a picture of her husband, also missing at Ground Zero. He signed it, telling her that when her husband returned she should let him know that she had met the President and had the signature to prove it. He wanted to give the families a ray of hope that their missing loved ones would be found. She thanked him and tucked the picture into her Bible.

I stood a few feet away from the President and took it in. I had never witnessed such sadness. People waited for President Bush to make his way around the room. Some cried out loud. Many sobbed softly. Several had to link arms to have the strength to stay on their feet in this makeshift room, with blue curtains acting as walls inside a giant convention hall. As people waited for their turn to talk to the President, some struck up conversations with me. One woman told me her brother had served in the United States Marine Corps during Desert Storm and had been working at the World Trade Center. She hadn't seen him since the attack. "If anyone knows how to get out," she told me, "it's him. He's a Marine. He knows how to survive for days." I told her I was sure she was right.

Moments before it was time to go, the President approached an elderly woman seated in a chair. Her name was Arlene Howard. She sat serenely, waiting for him. In her hand she held the shield of a Port Authority Police officer. The shield belonged to her son, George Howard, a Port Authority cop with the Emergency Security Unit at JFK Airport and a volunteer fireman in Hicksville, on New York's Long Island. When the towers were attacked, he rushed to the scene.

Rescue workers found her son's body the day after the attack with his shield still on his shirt. It was given to her as a loving memory. When the President arrived at her side, she took the shield and gave it to him. "This is so you remember what happened here," she said. "This is so no one will forget."

Six days later, when the President addressed the nation in a speech to a joint session of Congress, he held up the shield and said, "I will carry this: It is the police shield of a man named George Howard, who died at the World Trade Center trying to save others. It was given to me by his mom, Arlene, as a proud memorial to her son. This is my reminder of lives that ended, and a task that does not end."

As the motorcade sped down Forty-second Street, the President still clutched George Howard's shield in his hand, and I stared at the silent crowds from my vehicle, several cars back. Manhattan never felt so still. We were on our way to the Wall Street Landing Zone to catch the Marine helicopters that would take us to New Jersey's McGuire Air Force Base, where Air Force One waited. As we passed Times Square, the billboard carrying that day's news circled round — "President Bush Calls Up 50,000 Reservists," it said.

The winds of war were blowing.

Excerpted from “Taking Heat” by Ari Fleischer. Copyright © 2005 by William Morrow, a division of . All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from the publishers.