Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary and assistant to President Bush, will participate in the University of Judaism's 2004 Public Lecture Series opening Jan. 26.
Following the sold-out success of the previous two series, next year's Monday evening lineup at the Universal Amphitheatre will feature Gen. Tommy Franks on Jan. 26, former President Bill Clinton and former Sen. Bob Dole on Feb. 23, Bill Maher and William Kristol on March 22 and Fleischer, Tom Brokaw and Dee Dee Meyers on April 19.
The series format will allow audience members to submit questions well in advance that will be printed in the programs and become part of each lecture's question-and-answer period.
The Journal spoke to Fleischer, 43, to ask a few questions of our own.
Jewish Journal: It must have been a heady experience to be the president's spokesman, with the world hanging on your every word. Why did you leave?
Ari Fleischer: The job was exhilarating, fascinating and intellectually rewarding, but it was also exhausting and very hard. The nature of the White House briefing room has changed a lot. And I got married, too. As I said when I left, I wanted to do something more relaxing, like dismantling live nuclear weapons.
JJ: In what sense have White House press briefings changed?
AF: With round-the-clock TV and radio news, with the Internet, everything has become instant. Reporters are under a lot more pressure than just 10 years ago, when they had more time for reflection and analysis.
JJ: There were and are relatively few Jewish faces in the White House. How did you feel as the sort of resident Jewish rep?
AF: My Jewishness was never an issue. The White House staff is overwhelmingly Texan and Christian, but I found it a very comfortable place to work. Besides, I wasn't the only Jew. There was Josh Bolten, the No. 1 policy person; Blake Gottesman, the president's personal aide who travels with him everywhere; and Brad Blakeman, the president's scheduling director.
JJ: Are you a lifelong Republican?
AF: By no means. Both my parents are proud Democrats. My dad never voted for a Republican and never will. While I lived at home and when I started college, I was a liberal Democrat. In a sense, it was President Carter who drove me out of the Democratic Party and it was President Reagan who welcomed me into the Republican Party.
JJ: How did your parents react when you came out of the closet and told them you had become a Republican?
AF: They were horrified and my dad is still horrified. We are a very close family, but not a quiet one. One of my brothers is a very liberal Democrat, and the other is a very conservative Republican. We have some very spirited discussions around the dinner table.
JJ: Did you have a Jewish education?
AF: I went to a Jewish nursery school on the Upper West Side of New York, attended Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue, and [had my] bar mitzvah at a Reform temple in Ridgefield, Conn.
JJ: Tell me a little about your family background.
AF: My father was born in this country, but my mother came here from Hungary in August 1939. Very few of her family survived the Holocaust.
JJ: Have your parents met President Bush?
AF: Yes, many times. They both like him personally, and my mother even said she might vote for him because he is so pro-Israel. She is still sitting on the fence. Occasionally, the president would ask me, "Have I got your mother yet?" but she is making him work for it.
JJ: Did the president have a nickname for you?
AF: Yes, he called me Ari-Bob, sort of Texanized my name.
JJ: Are you involved with any Jewish organization?
AF: I was too busy when I was working in the White House, and now I have been setting up my own communications firm in Washington. But my wife, Becki, and I are expecting our first baby in May and we have been synagogue shopping.
JJ: Are you writing a book? Will it be a kiss-and-tell?
AF: Yes to the first part and no to the second. I'm writing about what I saw in the White House and my relationship to the press corps. The job was really like walking a tightrope between the president and the press. The reporters were a very sharp group, but very demanding.
JJ: The large majority of Jews remain Democratic. What would you tell them to try and shift the balance?
AF: I would urge Jews to be open-minded, to follow the news, to vote their conscience and to be thankful that they have such a good friend of Israel in the Oval Office.
JJ: Do you see any shift among Jewish voters in the 2004 elections?
AF: If the issues are largely domestic, the Democrats will fare very well among Jewish voters. But if Iraq, terrorism and Israel are front and center, I think Jews will take a second look. There is also the generational factor. Younger Jews are much more open to voting Republican. Their elders, who still remember FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt], are likely to stay with the Democrats.
Subscriptions for the UJ's Public Lecture Series are $200-$400. Tickets cannot be purchased separately. For more information, call (310) 440-1246. Â