By Alex Tresniowski
November 19, 2001 12:00 PM

One the day of the terrorist attacks Ari Fleischer spent nearly every moment at the side of his boss, President George W. Bush. He huddled in the cabin of Air Force One as the Commander in Chief issued orders and fielded urgent phone calls, but the gravity of the situation truly sank in on their return to Washington, D.C. “The President looked out his window, saw the smoke coming out of the Pentagon and said, ‘The mightiest building in the world is on fire,’ ” recalls Fleischer, 41. “He said, ‘That’s the 21st-century war you’ve just witnessed.’ ”

Since Sept. 11, the century’s first White House press secretary has had to redefine the job in a time of unprecedented crisis. So unflappable he at times seems downright robotic, Fleischer has been called on to clarify complicated issues about bioterrorism, explain military maneuvers that are largely covert and satisfy a voracious press corps without compromising national security—and all under the sort of daily pressure faced by few, if any, of his predecessors. “It’s an impossible job,” says Joe Lock-hart, former press secretary to President Bill Clinton. “If you can avoid making yourself the story and reflect the President’s beliefs, you’ve done a good job. And so far he’s done that.”

Too well, grumble some veteran journalists frustrated by Fleischer’s unwillingness to stray past the company line. “I can’t think of a time he has been rattled,” says CBS News correspondent Bill Plante. “He can deflect most hostile questions with a smile or by just ignoring the question.” Fleischer admits his press briefings now have “more tension and hostility. The tightrope I walk every day has gotten tighter.” But he gets his highest marks from the man who matters most. “Ari knows the balance between being loyal to the President and loyal to the press,” said President Bush earlier this year. “I believe the press trusts him, and so do I.”

No one doubts Fleischer’s way with words, a defining trait since childhood. The youngest of three sons, he was raised in New York’s affluent Westchester County by Alan Fleischer, now 73 and a retired executive recruiter, and Martha, 70, a retired IBM programmer. “Ari didn’t start speaking until much later than his brothers,” recalls Martha. “But when he started, he never stopped. In preschool the teacher once put him out because he talked too much.”

He showed a knack for politics as well, twice getting elected class president at Fox Lane High School. It was after graduating from Vermont’s Middlebury College (where he studied political science) in 1982 that the son of die-hard Democrats jumped to the GOP. The move was influenced by the plight of his Hungarian-born mother, who as a child fled the Holocaust with her parents. “The notion of captive nations like Hungary struck me as wrong,” he says. “Then Ronald Reagan came along and called the Soviet Union the evil empire. I couldn’t have agreed more.” As for Fleischer’s parents, “we thought, ‘He’ll grow out of it,’ ” says Martha. “It’s been 20 years and we still think he’ll grow out of it.”

Fleischer found his calling once he signed on as press secretary to Jon Fossel, a congressional candidate, in 1982. He worked for Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Elizabeth Dole before getting the call from Texas Gov. Bush in 1999. The two hit it off when Fleischer moved to Austin for Bush’s campaign and tried his best to blend in. “I think I saw him use a toothpick once,” says Bush, whose nickname for Fleischer is Ari Bob, because “in Texas, you have two first names, and as far as I’m concerned he’s a Texan.”

These days Fleischer usually rises at 5 a.m. in his three-floor Capitol Hill condo (Molson in the fridge, cats Thor and Thumper on the prowl) and gets to work by 7. He spends a quarter of each day meeting with the President and the rest prepping for press briefings. His hectic schedule (he rarely gets home before 9 p.m.) leaves little time for dating, particularly since Fleischer is such an organized suitor. He once had a clerk at Nordstrom show him every dress by a girlfriend’s favorite designer so he could buy just the right one as a gift. Another quirk was “practice dates,” says his friend Susannah Gaylord Stoll, 38, a health-care publicist. “He would take me to restaurants so he’d know what to order.” Still, he has yet to find the perfect mate—someone who shares his religious commitment. “My faith means a lot to me,” says Fleischer, who is Jewish.

So does spending time with friends, whom he has been known to pack into buses for road trips. A big New York Yankees fan—and the guy the President calls when he wants to play catch—Fleischer also suits up for the Beer Point Boys, an over-30 hardball team. Mostly, though, he stays focused on his job, which he knows gives him a unique perspective on history. On Sept. 14 he was with Bush when the President toured the rubble of the Twin Towers. “Then the chants of ‘USA! USA!’ went up,” Fleischer says. “You can’t help but be moved by how strong and great this country is.”

Alex Tresniowski

Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.