"You're not the Internet"

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer calls on the White House press corps to behave. Are the Bush girls fair game? Plus: The California governor moves his war with the president to the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.

By Anthony York

Published May 31, 2001 6:33PM (EDT)

Big buzz

Is the Jenna Bush story fair game? That is the question being batted around from the online chatrooms to the White House briefing room. At today's press briefing, the White House press corps and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer struggled to set ground rules about coverage of the president's twin daughters, and Fleischer issued a warning to reporters about writing about the dynamic duo.

Reporter: Has the President decided whether he'll make a public statement regarding his daughters who are on police blotter?

Ari Fleischer: Helen, there was never a question --

Reporter: His daughter?

Fleischer: -- there was never a question about that.

Reporter: No? Did you ask him?

Fleischer: There was never a question that the President might seek to do so.

Reporter: Why not?

Fleischer: The President views this as a family matter, a private matter, and he will treat it as such.

Reporter: Well, it is a public matter. It happens to be in every newspaper in the country.

Fleischer: I've answered the question.

Reporter: Ari, what are the President's instructions to the Secret Service with regard to the daughters? Are they asked to give them a lot of leeway, to give them a lot of room, or --

Fleischer: No, the Secret Service's mission is to protect the lives of their protectees. And whether they are family members of whether they are former presidents, whoever they are, the Secret Service has one mission, and that is to protect their lives.

Reporter: But are they given more direction in terms of -- given their age and their desire to have some freedom, are they instructed to take a step back and to not be right on top of them?

Fleischer: I think if you want to ask the Secret Service any questions about their methods and operations, that's a question you need to address to them.

Reporter: But they have no specific instructions -- beyond protecting them -- from the President?

Fleischer: The Secret Service's mission is to protect the lives of the people, regardless of who they are. That's their charge, that's their mission.

Reporter: Ari, with all due respect, they are also a law enforcement agency, and they're charged with upholding the law. Does it put the Service in an awkward position at all when protectees engage in arguably illegal activity?

Fleischer: Again, their mission is to protect lives, and that's what they do.

Reporter: So they don't have a law enforcement mission as far as you know? The Secret Service?

Fleischer: Their mission, as far as protecting their detailee, is the people assigned to be covered, is for the purposes I indicated. That's why they are there.

Reporter: Were they involved in getting Jenna's boyfriend out of jail?

Fleischer: Helen, I think you need to address any questions about what the Secret Service does to the Secret Service.

Reporter: Ari, earlier this morning, you suggested that the press corps should, in your words, very carefully think through follow-up questions on the matter relating to Jenna and Barbara. Since the White House is not going to issue a statement, can you tell us if you believe that coverage of the episode yesterday is a legitimate occupation for the press? And what do you mean by follow-up questions that we should be careful about?

Fleischer: Major, I am not going to deem to tell the press at this juncture what the press should or shouldn't do. I think that's why you're here. You're here to make those judgments and you're the White House press corps, and I think you're set apart from most press corps in America in terms of exercising that judgment. You're not the Internet. But I was asked this morning specifically about, will you tell us what the President discussed with his 19-year-old daughter. And I don't think that's an appropriate question.

Reporter I didn't ask you for that. I asked for his attitude of what had happened --

Fleischer I don't think it's appropriate for people to be told what was a part of a private conversation that the President had with a 19-year-old child. And in that, I think most Americans agree that, yes, he is the President of the United States, but he too is a father and, as a father, he is entitled to have private conversations with his children. And he will continue to keep those conversations private and so, too, shall I.

Reporter I think we should know what his attitude is toward his children who are constantly in trouble with the police.

Fleischer Gone into it.

Reporter Is it fair to assume that she got chewed out over this?

Fleischer Again, I think that you really want to ask yourself these questions about, do you want the American people to know that you're asking about private conversations that took place between the President of the United States and his child. And I will just have to leave that to you. But you know what my answer will be. This is and shall remain a private family matter.

Jim, did you have a follow-up?

Reporter We understand that it's just -- it seems fair to assume that the President might be upset that his daughter is arrested and charged with a crime, even though it's a misdemeanor. Especially since --

Fleischer First of all, you need to examine the premise of what you just said. Your facts are totally incorrect.

Reporter Not the most recent one; the previous one.

Fleischer That's also incorrect. Be careful about your facts.

Reporter: -- received a violation of the law.

Fleischer: You've indicated that there was an arrest.

Reporter: Sorry; she received a ticket. Obviously, the President -- the President gave up drinking. This is something that is obviously something that is very personal to him, not in a private way, because he has talked about it during the campaign. And that's one reason that this obviously raises more questions.

Fleischer: Jim, let me stop you there. I've addressed this. And the President has addressed this. And nothing is going to change. And in that, I think the American people agree with the President that it is his purview, even as President of the United States, to have private moments with his family, and that includes his two 19-year-old daughters.

And like any parent raising a child, they expect the right to talk privately with their children, no matter what position they hold in life, whether they're the President of the United States, whether they are the head of an organization, whether they're an ordinary citizen who gets to enjoy their privacy. I think it should always be the right of any President of the United States to have private conversations with their children. And that will continue to be the President's approach.

And I think, frankly, that's an approach that the American people receive, and receive well. The press corps may not receive it well, but that won't change a thing.

Anger management

The biggest Red vs. Blue going is smack-dab in the center of the New York Times' Op-Ed page Thursday, straight from the pen of Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani's new boss, California Gov. Gray Davis.

The happy symbiosis of Davis' reelection day (just a short 17 months away) and the Democrats' continuing search for national leadership has Davis leaving bountiful bouquets of blame at the feet of President Bush for California's energy woes. The governor even evokes the name of his holiness Alan Greenspan in his 1,000-word attack on the president.

Andrew Sullivan, for one, was not impressed.

"California Governor Gray Davis did his best to look menacing alongside the president yesterday. Today, he takes over the op-ed page of the New York Times (Jim Carville and Paul Begala had the day off) to whine yet again about how his state's utility mess is someone else's fault," Sullivan writes.

"Davis, menacing?" cracks one Lucianne.com poster. "Like a department store mannequin."

Even the libs at Plastic.com weren't biting. "If Davis doesn't wake it up, pronto, he and Bush are both going to get savaged by the voters in 2002," writes one.

Adds another: "And by the time Gray Davis gets his suit against the [Federal] Energy Regulatory Commission before a jury, he'll have lost the 2002 election to Arnold Schwarzenegger or whoever the National Enquirer is touting in late 2002."

For more Red vs. Blue, click here.

Submit your own rant or direct us to a good political online discussion by e-mailing us at redvsblue@salon.com, or jump right into a Table Talk discussion about Red vs. Blue.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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