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Call The Briefing

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Marlin Fitzwater

Presidential press spokesman from 1983 to 1993, Fitzwater offers few revelations (other than accounts of cabinet members' spats) but engaging recollections of the "psychological wars" he helped fight in the briefing room with the White House press corps. … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Marlin Fitzwater
Genre: Biographies & Memoirs
Publisher: Xlibris Corporation
1 review about Call The Briefing

Life With The Lions

  • May 30, 2009
Imagine yourself in a closed room, facing dozens of smart, somewhat sarcastic people who see your ruination, and that of your boss, as their path to glory and success. Also, they get to decide whether you win or lose. According to Marlin Fitzwater, that was the reality he faced for six years as spokesman for two U.S. presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

"Call The Briefing!" is a fascinating, rather strange book. On the one hand, Fitzwater has no trouble saying the press was against him, sometimes actively, in part because of the nature of their job and in part because of ideology. But on the other hand, he really liked the press, and sweated their disfavor. They may have been jungle beasts, as he memorably paints them in the opening of one chapter, but likable on the whole. Not that he ever let his guard down.

"Treat them like professionals, and they will be your friends," he tells Bush 41. "But treat them like friends and they will betray you every time."

It seems to have worked for Fitzwater, who served the last two years of Reagan's presidency and the entirety of his successor's term of office. The last two former presidents, by comparison, have had four press secretaries apiece.

Sustaining Fitzwater, in addition to good humor, was passion for his job. "One of the most fascinating aspects of being a part of the presidency, a part of history, is the uncanny self-awareness of your role that sometimes occurs, as if you are in a painting, or playing a cameo role," he writes.

A strength of the book is the way Fitzwater puts you in his role, dealing with a number of issues that seemed quite important on that day but have already faded with time, like a health scare when Bush collapses during a jog or the resignation of a minor Reagan legal counsel in the wake of Iran-Contra. Now they seem like tiddlywinks games, but back then, each came entangled with a slew of moral, ethical, even legal quandaries.

One such time is a crisis in Panama, not the later invasion that was one of the touchstones of Bush 41, but a failed coup attempt by elements of the Panamanian military which the White House watched closely and hopefully, but with great confusion. Fitzwater learns belatedly that there were contacts between the coup plotters and U.S. forces at the Panama Canal Zone, but not passed on to the White House. Bush 41 was thus not culpable in the coup attempt. Instead, because word wasn't passed up from the Canal Zone, he appeared out of touch.

What to say when asked, point-blank, what the president knew and when he knew it? Fitzwater couldn't lie and say no contact occurred, that would be wrong and stupid besides, if caught. Tell the truth, and Bush would appear "incompetent", at least as the media spun it.

So he stalls, spins, and obfuscates. "It is the netherworld of government that we were all innocent and yet guilty at the same time," Fitzwater writes.

Fitzwater uses his book more as a primer for the job of press secretary than as a history or straightforward memoir, a mistake in emphasis that continues throughout the book. I was disappointed at times by a desert-dry tone, and more so with his unwillingness to discuss the two core events of Bush 41, the Panama invasion and Desert Storm. Instead, a lot more attention than needed is given to various summits with the Soviets, a non-entity by the time of this book's 2000 publication. Fitzwater sweats his likening Soviet premier Gorbachev to a "drugstore cowboy" for an entire chapter, even though it seems few care beyond a day or two.

But he does share a lot of himself with the reader, as well as candid impressions of those he knew, both in the White House and in the press room. Unsparing at times, crisply detailed, "Call The Briefing!" in its best moments captures well the rollercoaster emotions of being in the lions' den, waving slabs of meat without looking nervous. If not exactly the lesson book Fitzwater seems to envision, it's still very much worth a read.

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