WASHINGTON — I dropped by the White House press office the other day, and soon was chatting with press secretary Ari Fleischer. He was busy, looking through a stack of papers as he prepared for his daily briefing of reporters. But when he saw me standing at his door, he waved me in. He graciously made time for an old-timer.
We quickly got into the old days. Ari was interested in President Eisenhower's great press secretary, James Hagerty, who may have been the best to hold that position. I'd have to be careful if I said that among a bunch of old-time reporters. They'd have other favorites - like Kennedy's Pierre Salinger, Johnson's Bill Moyers, Carter's Jody Powell, George H.W. Bush's Marlin Fitzwater, and, most recently, Mike McCurry. All good men, all men I have praised for their ability to deal with the White House press.
But I would give the nod to Hagerty, who had been New York Gov. Thomas Dewey's press secretary before he joined up with Eisenhower. I never worked with Hagerty at the White House, but I got to know him later. And I've heard so many rave reviews about his White House performance from veteran, hard-bitten reporters who did work closely with him that I have become a firm believer in the Hagerty legend: He was tough, he was honest, he was fair, and he was "the best."
So I said to Fleischer, "Would you like to hear a Hagerty story, one he told me after he had left the White House?" And Ari, even with that briefing deadline staring him in the face, said he would love to hear it. That was all the encouragement I needed.
Hagerty hadn't been Ike's press aide as he campaigned for president in 1952. But within hours after it became clear that Eisenhower had beaten Adlai Stevenson, Tom Dewey, who, of course, had followed up his successful governing years with that astonishing loss to Harry Truman in 1948, wired Ike to advise him that he would need an experienced press secretary in the White House and that Hagerty was just the right man for the job. Ike took the advice.
Hagerty told me of his first meeting with that war hero of D-Day, that five-star general of World War II, in the White House. He said the president was sitting in front of a desk when he entered the great man's presence, and that Ike pointed to a chair in front of the desk where Hagerty was to sit. Ike didn't smile. In fact, he didn't even look at Hagerty. Instead, he looked over at the side, perhaps out a window. So Hagerty looked over to the side. Ike said nothing. Hagerty said nothing. After a little while, Ike turned and looked at Hagerty and Hagerty turned and looked at Ike. And then after several more silent moments had gone by, Ike smiled at Hagerty and said, "You don't scare easily, do you?"
And that, as Hagerty told me, was the beginning of a great relationship where Hagerty had this closeness to a president that a press secretary must have if he is going to know what is going on and thus be able to tell the press what is going on.
Fleischer got a big laugh out of the story. But I doubt that he would find it applicable to his own job. Eisenhower was always a general, except with his very close friends. I had interviewed him twice after he had retired to Gettysburg. And while he had been friendly enough to me, I was never able to forget who he was. Mentally, I was always standing at attention.
George W. Bush is said to be, like his father, a great admirer of Eisenhower. But, from what I've been able to tell, he has an easy way of dealing with others. Ike had that big, warm smile, but he really was a formal man. And George W. is quite obviously very informal in his relationships.
So Ari doesn't have to "stand up" to George W. in order to get along with him. That's clear. But I don't know yet whether he has established the closeness with President Bush that Hagerty had with Eisenhower - or whether he has to get much of his information about the president through others.
I don't think enough time has gone by for any journalists, even those who see Fleischer every day, to have a firm hold on how good a press secretary he is going to be. As an old-timer, my knowledge of how Ari does is limited to watching him at his briefings on C-SPAN and from what reporters at the Monitor breakfasts tell me.
He looks to me as though he's doing a good job. He's poised, knowledgeable, and has a great sense of humor.
Is he another Hagerty? Well, that's a pretty tall order.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor