State Department spokesman Dean Fischer; All the nuance that's fit to print

There is a Time magazine mirror on Dean Fischer's office wall at the State Department that is blank at this moment, 5 p.m. on a spring day full of green lace trees. It is painted with the magazine's logo and a red banner, so that whoever looks in it is reflected back as ''Man of the Year.''

State Department spokesman Fischer laughs when he's asked about the mirror. It's a gift reminding him of all the stories he filed over a 17-year career as one of Time's star correspondents and editors. But if Dean Edward Fischer has his unobtrusive way, the face the public sees reflected in the mirror will be that of Alexander Haig, the secretary of state.

As the Falklands crisis has mounted, viewers have seen Fischer in quick flashes on the nightly TV news at State Department briefings, fine-tuning the wording of Secretary Haig's policies. On remotes from Buenos Aires or London -- or this week, Luxembourg -- he is the weary face in the crowd close to Haig, silent and alert as the secretary speaks. At a time of great international tension, his is the increasingly important, but anonymous, face of the spokesman for the State Department and Haig.

In one of the paradoxes of politics, Fischer finds himself in a reverse role from that of the last man to occupy his office: Hodding Carter, spokesman for Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Fischer's boss is frequently in the limelight and could never be accused of reticence with the press. But it was Hodding Carter who became a national news celebrity as nightly TV spokesman for the administration during the Iran hostage crisis. Carter acted almost as Vance's alter ego in vivid and articulate briefings on the secretary's position. Vance kept a profile so low it disappeared into the horizon. Haig is more apt to deplane, as the airlines say, on a runway anywhere in the world to face the cameras and the notebooks with zest, while a tall and taciturn Fischer stands by.

On his own turf, in the wedge-shaped State Department briefing room, Fischer is suitably responsive to questions. Isn't Hodding Carter a tough act to follow? Fischer doesn't see it that way. He sloughs off any comparison with Carter with a shrug of his well-tailored shoulders, indicating that he has a different perception of the job. ''The secretary is his own best spokesman,'' he says.

And Fischer follows his own perceptions, as a story told by his longtime friend, writer Nick Kotz, illustrates. Fischer and Kotz were cub reporters together on the Des Moines Register. The assignment was an expose of the county assessor's office, which appeared to be rife with corruption, a difficult story to crack for reporters who could not normally be expected to tell whether a building assessed at, say, $900,000 was actually worth $1 million.

''Dean cracked a piece of the story, and the way he did it tells me a lot about Dean,'' says Mr. Kotz. ''He centered in by studying a lot of records in the assessor's office and noticing erasure changes in assessments on one or two particularly large real-estate owners in Des Moines. The owners were not connected with the most savory people in town, and he thought there was something suspicious.

''He went out and looked at the buildings involved, which were large warehouses, and then looked at their assessment records. Something struck him as not right. So he went out in the middle of the night with a buddy and took a 100 -foot-long tape measure to measure the dimensions of the buildings. What he'd been eyeballing and the assessment records didn't jibe. He found that thousands of square feet on these huge warehouses had been omitted in the assessments.

''That tells me a lot about Dean: that he has a good eye for detail, that he saw it looked different to him from the numbers on the cards and was willing to go out in the middle of the night to measure it, that he's persistent, methodical, hard-charging, a good reporter.''

Kotz speaks of Fischer's consistency over the years he's known him: ''I identify Dean with the Midwest and lots of people I've known from there -- he's not flamboyant, he's the opposite of flamboyant, he's conservative in personality, dry in wit, with a certain reserve, then as now. . . .''

At times during the State Department briefings Fischer sounds like Mr. Cryptic in his Midwest baritone. In part this is because briefings are something of an art form, in this case a diplomatic minuet in which every step is measured and choreographed carefully. A departure from the intricate form of the dance could signal a change in department attitude or policy, so the spokesman is careful to observe the proper steps. Some of the Fischer phrases with which State Department reporters are signaled, discouraged, or encouraged as they sniff out the story: ''I'm not going to characterize that. . . . I will not be drawn in on that, I have nothing more specific to add. . . . That is correct. . . . That doesn't rule out some modification. . . No, modification, not clarification. . . . I see no inconsistency in such a description.''

''This I am denying,'' he will occasionally say to lead reporters off a false trail, or ''keep pressing,'' as he told one reporter when another yawned, ''Can't we change the subject?'' The subject may range anywhere in the world: the Falklands, Cuba, Nicaragua, B.A. (journalese for Buenos Aires), the West Bank, El Salvador -- the current hot spots, where one false word could trigger a diplomatic incident.

The briefings are not without humor, in bureaucratic lingo: One pesky reporter who raises a collective sigh from the press corps every time he asks a question, shouts down the others to say he's been researching an aspect of the Monroe Doctrine for seven years. He then asks a question about it and demands an immediate answer. ''Well, we wouldn't want you to wait another seven years,'' Fischer says with a faint, dry smile. He promises him an answer by the end of the day.

Fischer tends to tamp down even the most agitated and persistent questions with a calm, tweedy authority. He is not given to occasional high jinks and colorful phrases, like his predecessor. Hodding Carter would discourage a reporter's false lead with a phrase like ''that dog won't hunt,'' and once silenced the same pesky reporter by hurling a rubber chicken at him from the podium.

Dean Fischer stands tall and unflappable during State Department briefings. At times, in profile, he resembles the stern American eagle emblazoned on the blue lectern before him. He is terse, serious, deft with the questions that fly by.

Back in his office, he's slightly more relaxed, feet up on the coffee table, but still more solemn and close with words than ex-reporters are expected to be. He tends to speak in a deliberate, weighty style; his sentences have a lot of heft.

He is talking sotto voce, like a character in one of his favorite novels by John Le Carre, about the role of spokesman:

''There are a number of different roles. First and foremost is to fairly, adequately, and accurately represent the secretary of state in my statements. Publicly and privately one of the lessons I quickly had to absorb was that every word I speak, whether I mean it to be or not, is frequently interpreted by virtue of my job as the secretary's mouthpiece. So that puts a high premium on expression, accuracy, and non-embellishment.

''Now obviously a second part is serving as a spokesman of the department of state, which by admission means the administration, on foreign policy.''

Speaking of State Department briefings as ''issue-oriented,'' he emphasizes the importance of nuance and subtlety in wording. ''Which means, I suppose, that my briefing is considerably more stilted, considerably less free-wheeling than those conducted at the White House. . . .''

He is a long, cool drink of water, carefully dressed this day in diplomatic pin stripes: dove gray with a fine white line. He wears a white shirt with dark gray stripes and a tie that from the podium looks eggplant color, but up close is maroon with a tiny blue pattern. Subtle. Black loafers, black socks. The jacket is off as he relaxes in his shirt-sleeves in an oatmeal-tweed easy chair in his office. The late afternoon sun bounces off smooth, roan-colored hair (which he points out is receding), and his amber-tinted aviator's glasses. He doffs them for briefings. Behind them are flag-blue eyes. The face is somewhere between craggy and handsome.

''That was fun,'' he says of the day's briefing. ''You know, those briefings are hardest when you can't say it.'' He is asked if in the briefings he throws off hints to the reporters, like sonar soundings to bats, that the ordinary bystander would not catch. ''Yes, I do in fact do that. And most of the reporters who have been here awhile are aware of that. . . .

''A 'no comment' obviously means something different from a denial. A 'no comment' usually means 'I don't know.' It is meant to signal that we are not prepared for whatever reason to make a statement one way or another in response to a question. Sometimes that is interpreted by reporters as a confirmation. But that, of course, is hazardous.

''Now the other thing I learned in this job is I'm not solely addressing the immediate audience, because all the words I speak are transmitted via the wireless file at I.C.A. (the International Communications Agency), or at least those words on the most important issues of the day. And they're read avidly by all our embassies around the world, and also by all the chanceries and governments with whom we do business. And that's a kind of daunting thought.''

He admits to having a temper, but adds: ''One has to watch oneself at the podium, because even a mild show of irritation somehow seems magnified on camera.'' He laughs. ''My usual expression of temper is not to fly into a rage, but to get quite icy or sarcastic . . . ask my wife.''

His wife, the former Marina Farwaji, doesn't mention that. She does say, ''He's detached, but at the same time a very warm person. He appears distant, but that's not his character =- he's very warm. But he has very effective, deep blue eyes that can freeze a person. He can be very detached, an academic in a sense, who doesn't care about anything around him and what people think.''

In a separate interview a few days before, Fischer had described himself as ''introspective, detached, and passionate . . . detached about some things, passionate about others . . . detached in some respects about this job, in order to be professional in the job. I think one's credibility is enhanced by a certain detachment, at least in terms of presentation, as opposed to being perceived as a passionate advocate. . . . I'm passionate about personal relationships, friendships.''

His marriage to half-British, half-Greek Marina Fischer is his second; his first marriage, to a British woman, ended in divorce, leaving him with two daughters, Tara and Tasmin, who live with their mother in London. He has two stepchildren -- a girl, Lara, and a boy, Karim. Whatever free time he has now in a 14-hour-a-day, six-day week at the State Department is spent with his family: playing soccer with his 7-year-old stepson, having family barbecues, jogging, or working out with his chain saw. He likes nothing better, his wife says, than looking for dead trees in the woods near their house so that he can chop wood on weekends. Mrs. Fischer says it wasn't until she saw her husband at a hometown reunion that she realized how deeply Midwestern he was, how his ''conservatism and truthfulness'' were rooted in the town's atmosphere and people.

He describes his boyhood as idyllic, growing up first in Kewanee, Ill., where his father was school superintendent, then moving to the small town of Alpha nearby, at the age of 12. Strong, big for his age, he played baseball, football, read sports stories hungrily, worked on a nearby farm to save for college, wanted to be a sportswriter when he grew up. He liked Swiss steak with mashed potatoes and playing ''The Third Man Theme'' on the piano. His mother describes him as ''so modest, even with us, not volunteering much'' about his globe-trotting life for Time as correspondent or bureau chief in Nairobi, London , Jerusalem, or domestically as Supreme Court, Department of Justice, and then White House correspondent. Before becoming State Department spokesman he had risen to Washington news editor for Time.

The exotic life he's lived began really with a Rotary Club fellowship after his graduation as a history major from Monmouth College. It allowed him to spend a year at the University of Calcutta in India before taking a master's at the University of Chicago. While in India traveling, he suffered from a bout of an apparently serious illness, but his parents heard about it first from a nurse in the hospital and only much later from him as he was near recovery. ''Is he stoic?'' says his mother. ''Yes, I guess you could say he doesn't like to spread bad news at all.'' His parents call him loyal, generous, dependable; his father says: ''We never had problems with him, no heartaches.''

His boyhood heroes were Ted Williams and legendary CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow: ''I admired him because he projected such an aura of integrity, and he was a newsman, and he also happened to be a logger from the West Coast, which I once was for a couple of summers during college.'' Fischer also developed an admiration for Alexander Haig when he was covering the White House for Time during the Watergate crisis. ''He was Richard Nixon's chief of staff . . . and I acquired a very strong respect for the man during very difficult days for him. . . . I perceived, I approached this job as doing it in the way Secretary Haig wanted it done. And if it would be helpful to him, it would be a great privilege for me to accept it, which it is. It's terribly important that anyone in this job, whether it's Hodding Carter or Bob McCloskey (a longtime, highly regarded spokesman in previous administrations) or whoever, have a personal relationship with the secretary of state, if for no other reason than it enhances the credibility of both of them, if that is the perception of the press.''

The perception of the press at the State Department is difficult to gauge, as they hover at their miked desks in the navy blue briefing room, filling the air with questions like shrapnel and then bolting off to file their stories or film their standups. After the briefing there is the daily truffle hunt for the real leads, as they sit typing or filing behind blue-glassed cubicles in the second-floor press room. One TV reporter is scurrying around briefing the others that there's a discrepancy between the new White House statement and the State Department one. Several reporters rush out the door for ''clarification,'' while a voice drones into a phone about ''reducing regional instability,'' the teletype machines clatter, and a handful of regulars stand about swapping ideas.

One of them is Jim McCartney of Knight-Ridder newspapers, who says: ''Obviously Dean has a pretty good relationship with Haig, but there's not as wide-open a mandate as Hodding had. Hodding often made policy while he was standing there answering questions. You'll never find Dean Fischer doing that. I find him accessible, intelligent. . . . He's helpful, but he tends to want to stay out of substantive policy questions and let Haig speak for himself.''

During his little-over-a-year as spokesman, Fischer has apparently stumbled only twice: once in what has been described as a private conversation in which he and another official left the impression with two reporters that Secretary Haig had successfully intervened in a UN resolution involving Israel and Iraq, an impression that suggested implicit criticism of Jeane Kirkpatrick, United States ambassador to the UN. In the flap that followed, President Reagan was upset enough to call Mrs. Kirkpatrick in Europe on her vacation and reassure her she was doing a tremendous job.

The other incident involved a photo which ran in France's Le Figaro Litteraire magazine purportedly depicting atrocities committed by the Sandinista government of Nicaragua against that country's Meskito Indians. An alert reporter says he pointed out to the State Department that the photo was a phony, actually taken during the Somoza regime, but Secretary Haig in a speech two days later cited the photo as an example of Nicaraguan repression, and criticized the American press for ignoring it. The photo was later publicly admitted to be bogus. ''It was only after he (Haig) referred to it publicly that we learned Figaro had made a mistake in its caption to the photograph,'' Fischer says. ''Obviously that's something to be avoided, but it was one of those incidents in which I think nobody is really at fault.''

When he is asked about being involved in the UN flap he says: ''So it is reported. I never said publicly whether I was or wasn't (the source). But it certainly has been reported that I was one of the sources involved in that story.'' He considers it a ''terribly'' unfortunate incident, and adds, ''the only way to address that is by saying I was one of those who was named as a source critical of Jeane Kirkpatrick. It also taught me that I have to be extremely careful in talking to reporters on any basis, and to make sure that remarks I make are not taken out of context.''

NBC State Department reporter Marvin Kalb, when asked to comment on Fischer, said: ''I don't think I want to talk to you on that. . . . I really don't think it is in the interests of the people who pay me that I give you a flat-out, level judgment on him . . . '' Long pause. ''But I will give you some general comments. . . . Hodding rose to stardom during a time of national anguish about an issue with an identifiable enemy, and an identifiable problem. . . . Dean comes in at a time without a clearly identifiable enemy, when the complexities of being a spokesman of American foreign policy are apparent even to a fool. And when you are seeking to explain this complex series of problems and when your principal, the Secretary of State, finds himself in hot water, then his job becomes exceedingly difficult.''

Associated Press reporter George Gedda points out that Hodding Carter had ''a very long leash, a good grasp of how Vance thought on issues . . . Dean Fischer is on a much shorter leash, far less inclined to wing it in the way Hodding did.'' Is that better or worse for the press?

''Well, we liked Hodding's approach. Fischer sticks very close to the guidance provided to him, and his personality is much different from Hodding's. He's much more reserved, less outgoing. I suppose you could say he's doing his job OK, because nothing he's said as far as I know has gotten Haig into trouble. . . .

''I'm probably less critical of him than some of my colleagues around here. The purpose of these briefings isn't to provide news to newsmen. The purpose is to protect the interests of the US as best [they] can.''

Fischer, who has recently had a few lessons on TV briefings from communications expert Dorothy Sarnoff, assesses press coverage of the State Department: ''It's very fair on issues. What I find awfully frustrating are stories that are so-called 'personality clashes.' . . . As a journalist I used to love stories about personality conflicts, or issues translated into personality terms; they're much more fun to write about. But I really have to say, from where I sit or stand now, it's awfully damaging,'' says the man in the Time mirror.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to State Department spokesman Dean Fischer; All the nuance that's fit to print
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today