CORPORATE FOCUS: Press Secretary for a Corporate President
Ari Fleischer is a nice guy.
He likes baseball.
We like baseball.
That's about where the similarities end.
Fleischer is the most recent in a long unbroken line of press secretaries of corporate presidents of the United States.
We decided recently to test Ari's knowledge of the workings of the corporate state.
We give the test by attending the daily White House Press Briefing and asking Ari questions.
We've been to five so far, and hope to attend at least the next 100 or so.
Our pitches are slow, and right down the middle.
Last week, we asked Ari if he had seen the Bill Moyers PBS special on the chemical industry.
He did not see it.
On PBS, Moyers makes allegations that the chemical industry over the past 20 years knew it was exposing workers to hazardous chemicals and as a result these workers died.
We pointed out that there's a criminal prosecution in Italy in a similar case. Manslaughter charges were brought against 31 chemical executives for exposing workers to these same chemicals.
So Ari, would President Bush support a manslaughter prosecution against chemical executives in this country for that kind of behavior?
"That's not a topic I have discussed with the President," Ari says. "And I won't comment on shows that I haven't watched."
Okay Ari, there's a report out by the Center for Public Integrity (www.public-i.org) that the President's decision on carbon dioxide emissions was routed through the legislative affairs director, Nicholas Calio.
In 1997, Calio's firm was paid $420,000 to lobby on this issue by Tenneco Automotive, which is one of the largest auto exhaust systems companies in the country.
We were wondering if the President is concerned about a growing public perception of corporate lobbyists coming into the White House and making public policy decisions on issues they were paid to lobby just a few months ago?
"The President makes his decisions on the merits, makes his decisions on what he believes is in the national interest," Ari says. He fought off big business on tax breaks, remember?
How about this Ari?
USA Today runs an editorial titled "More Public Drilling? Let's Collect Bills First." (April 6, 2001)
It says that the President has recommended more oil drilling on public lands, but there is a history of these big oil companies not paying the royalties.
So, over the past couple of years Shell Oil has paid $110 million in penalties, Chevron $95 million, ExxonMobil $52 million.
The editorial says "let's collect from the oil companies before we open up to more drilling."
Does the President agree?
Ari totally dodges the question, and starts talking about a cabinet level review to be chaired by Vice President Cheney "to take the steps necessary to secure America's supply of energy, particularly as we head into the travel season over the summer."
Wait a second, Ari, what about the oil companies ripping off the government? (Ari moves on.)
Ari, the President has said that we are going to get rid of the death tax "to keep farms in the family."
Yesterday, the New York Times, on the front page, ran an article, quoting tax experts saying they have never found a farm lost because of estate taxes.
Even the American Farm Bureau Federation, which supports repeal of the estate tax, says they could not cite a single instance of a farm lost because of estate taxes.
So, what did the President mean when he said we are going to get rid of the death tax to keep farms in the family?
"Well, one of the reasons for that is that farmers have to go through a tortuous process just to keep the farm in the family hands," Fleischer says.
Actually, according to the Times, farmers find avoiding the estate tax easy. Only the richest two percent of Americans owe estate taxes -- that's because the estate tax is not applied on the first $1.35 million of a couple's estate. And a farm couple can pass $4.1 million untaxed, as long as their heirs continue farming for 10 years, according to the Times.
Since the specifics weren't going over well, we decided to broaden out the inquiry and ask a question about President Bush's political philosophy.
Ari, a couple of months ago, Business Week magazine did a poll which found that three-quarters of the American people believe that "business had gained too much power over their lives."
And in an editorial, Business Week called on corporations to "get out of politics."
Does the President agree with three-quarters of the American people that "business has gained too much power over their lives" and with the editorial that they should "get out of politics"?
Ari skips over the question and sends out this all purpose put down: "The President believes that in this nation we are all in our economy together. I'm reminded of the old adage that you can't be for employees if you are against employers."
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999).