Ari Fleischer is very good at taking questions. So good, in fact, that after George W. Bush's former press secretary delivered a 40-minute speech in Ketchum last night, he engaged with the audience for a lively question and answer that lasted 20 minutes longer than his speech.
Fleischer's was the last of the winter's star-studded Sun Valley Center for the Arts Lecture Series. His speech was long on the colorful sort of presidential anecdotes that make political junkies go wild, regardless of party affiliation.
There was the time, just weeks after starting his job as the White House Press Secretary, that he was told that Bush wanted to meet him on the South Lawn "to play catch." The president was set to travel to Milwaukee, where he would throw out the first pitch in a Brewers game, and he wanted to make sure he was prepared.
"I walked out to the South Lawn in a suit and tie," Fleischer recalled. "The president, since he lived there, had the advantage of a change of clothes, and he walked out in sweatpants ... and a bullet proof vest."
Fleischer brought levity to the event with the tale of retrieving a lost ball that day from under the rose bushes and other non sequiturs of the political life. The job of press secretary was the most intellectually challenging, exciting and difficult job he would ever hold, he said.
And then there were the people he met.
"Twice, I got to meet the Pope," he said. "And once, I met Shaquille O'Neal."
Since leaving politics, Fleischer had set up shop as a sports media consultant, and one got the distinct feeling that his deference for Shaq wasn't just a good one-liner. Fleischer also delivered gripping and emotional anecdotes of serving as the face of the government on some of the nation's most dramatic, stressful and tragic days. He was with Bush on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and he heard the president say, privately and before anyone in the government had stated it publicly, that America was at war.
The audience's questions were probing and smart and led to some surprising revelations. Fleischer might be a staunch Republican—he converted after college from the liberal teachings he was raised with—but he conceded that America's middle class is being squeezed out of existence. There were days when blue collar workers could have a good shot at a middle class American life.
"Today, people who graduate high school and work blue collar jobs, they are having a much harder time making a go of it," he said.
Then came the big question on the subject that will trail the Bush administration for decades to come. On the subject of Iraq, Fleischer was clear and more contrite than during his days sparring with the White House Press Corps.
"Could we, should we have pulled back on what we were saying about weapons of mass destruction?" he asked. "We were unequivocally told by the CIA that [Saddam] had these weapons." He added that the intelligence agencies of several other countries—Egypt, Israel, France and others—corroborated those intelligence reports.
"The real lesson is that the CIA makes its best guesses, but they have no crystal ball. No one has any crystal ball."
But Fleischer did not re-argue the old Iraq arguments. He did not suggest that biological or chemical weapons remain buried in the sands outside Kirkuk. He didn't go as far as to suggest, as the now infamous Downing Street Memo proved, that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" to go to war. But neither did he defend the decision.
"Ultimately it was a mistake. We got it wrong."
That was a big moment and, to many in the audience who harbor doubts about why America went to war in Iraq eight years ago, not inconsequential. At $25 a ticket, hearing Ari Fleischer say those words seemed like a pretty good deal.