Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer visited the BYU campus on Tuesday, Sept. 20. He spoke about the need for students to find themselves during their college years, as well as the United States’s resilience in difficult times.
Fleischer worked as President George W. Bush’s press secretary from 2001 to 2003. He addressed the White House press corps daily, including during the aftermath of 9/11, and told BYU students he had the most paradoxical job in the world.
“It was the most intellectually stimulating, wonderful, marvelous job you could hold, while being the most grinding, thrilling, toughest, most pressure-filled job anybody could ever hold,” Fleischer said. “To this day, I don’t know how I could love so much something that every day seemed so hard to do.”
Fleischer grew up in New York City in a Democrat family, but changed his party after he graduated from college. He did not visit BYU to sway students’ political viewpoints, he said, but to encourage them to find their own ideas.
“What I want you to do is find your journey, learn who you are,” Fleischer said. “That’s what college is mostly about. College is that most wonderful time for learning, for exploration, for thinking, for challenging and for judging yourself.”
Fleischer worked on several Republican campaigns, including holding a position as communications director for Elizabeth Dole’s presidential bid. He worked for the Bush campaign after Dole dropped out of the 2000 election.
“I learned along the way that every job that I had, the higher you climb the ladder, the more you should learn,” Fleischer said. “Learning should never stop.”
The presidential recount in 2000 lasted six weeks, and Fleischer said he couldn’t even look at the White House until the Supreme Court ruled that Bush won the election. Working as press secretary brought many opportunities to Fleischer, such as the chance to meet world leaders. He said he once played catch on the White House lawn with Bush, who wore sweat pants and a bulletproof jacket.
The most emotional days of his career came right after 9/11, Fleischer said, when he and Bush met with the family members of missing individuals. Americans unified quickly at the time, and Fleischer said he believes this is a key characteristic of the nation.
“This is the fabric of our country,” Fleischer said. “Sept. 11 was a day of tragedy that unified all of us. And today we live in an era — particularly you as young people live in an era — where your politics is anything but unified. It’s anything but uplifting. This country unifies quickly when we need to unify because that, too, is the story of this country.”
There is an ideological bias in today’s newsrooms, Fleischer said, and journalism would benefit from having more conservative reporters to write about topics like the role of religion in modern society.
But Fleischer said students should follow their hearts when planning their careers.
“The power of ideas, the power of persuasion, along with the willingness to compromise, has always made America such a great country,” Fleischer said. “So as you confront, as you deal, as you think about your future, I want you to go where your heart tells you to go. Go where your faith tells you to go.”
David Dollahite, professor of family life, will speak in BYU’s next devotional on Tuesday, Sept. 27, at 11 a.m.