WASHINGTON (AP) - White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, the public face of the Bush administration through two wars and a terrorist attack, said Monday he will resign in July to enter the private sector. His replacement will likely be deputy press secretary Scott McClellan.
"I've decided my time has come to leave the White House," Fleischer said in a telephone interview.
The spokesman said he wanted to leave the hard-driving job before President Bush's re-election campaign geared up.
Fleischer clashed at times with the White House press corps and had an uneasy relationship with some senior Bush aides, but he said the departure was his idea. He notified Bush of his decision Friday. The president ended the conversation "by kissing me on the head," the spokesman said.
Fleischer, 42, got married six months ago. He said that after 21 years in government he wanted to go on the speaking circuit and maybe do some writing. With Bush beginning his re-election campaign, Fleischer said this is the time to leave the White House "or sign on for the full four years."
"I've just been thinking about what I want to do, when I want to do it," he said. "I believe deeply in this president, his policies and the man. But there comes a time in public service when you have to decide when it's time to go."
Bush has not decided who will replace Fleischer, two senior White House officials said. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Texas native McClellan is the likely replacement but there are other candidates.
Republican strategist Ed Gillespie and Pentagon spokesman Victoria Clarke are potential prospects.
A cautious and calibrating press secretary, Fleischer has been the public voice of the presidency through the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the war in Afghanistan and the Iraq war, loyally putting the best spin on events. He frustrated reporters by constantly dodging the toughest questions and sometimes irked his White House colleagues by pushing for access behind the scenes.
His meatless pronouncements on Bush policy are generally in keeping with a White House that keeps a tight lid on information. He often professes ignorance about details.
Fleischer has had his share of fumbles and dodges in the hothouse atmosphere of the White House briefing room.
He acknowledged shooting himself in the foot when he snapped that "one bullet" in Saddam Hussein's head would be cheaper than a war.
In the run-up to war with Iraq, Fleischer denied reports that Bush was meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair abroad. The trip was announced the next day.
He once fumbled on the whereabouts of the vice president. Asked why Dick Cheney did not attend a Sept. 11 anniversary event, Fleischer said the vice president was at a meeting of Bush's top aides.
When it was pointed out to him that Bush's top aides were at the anniversary event, Fleischer stammered.
It turned out Cheney had been spirited away to a secret location because of the same potential threats to the country that prompted the government to heighten the public terrorist alert soon after.
Over the months, a pattern of finger-pointing has emerged with every miscue: Fleischer would privately accuse superiors of passing on bad information to the press office while the senior staff would quietly point the finger back to Fleischer. Still, senior White House officials said Monday that Fleischer left on his own, and that Bush wanted him to stay through the re-election.
Goofs sometimes gave way to goofy - such as when Fleischer joked about potatoes attacking America.
This year, Fleischer defended Bush's plan to deny normal collective bargaining and other employee rights to workers at the proposed Homeland Security Department by noting that presidents have long had the authority to suspend such rights in a national emergency.
Senate opponents would stop Bush from using powers he already has in other departments, he contended.
"If he declared that there was an emergency, he could stop collective bargaining at the Department of Agriculture," Fleischer said. "So under what the Senate is proposing, the president will have more authority to help protect the homeland if potatoes attacked America in the Department of Agriculture than he would if terrorists did."
Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.