Marlin Fitzwater, former White House press secretary for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, will receive the Kansas State University Alumni Association’s Alumni Excellence Award on Oct. 17.
Fitzwater, 76, a 1965 alumnus of K-State, grew up on a farm near Abilene. Along with being the only press secretary to be appointed by two presidents, Fitzwater has worked as a businessman, journalist, civil servant and author.
His most recent book, “Calm Before the Storm,” is set for release on Sept. 3. It details Bush’s meetings, planning and strategy before the Desert Storm. He also has written a historical fiction novel, a mystery novel and a book of short stories.
In 2002, he founded the Marlin Fitzwater Center for Communication at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.
He recently spoke with a reporter by telephone. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did growing up in Kansas shape your career?
I think it helped in many ways. One, it was hard work. You don’t get away with anything, if you’re a farm lad, in terms of sloughing off or not doing the job. You learn a lot of basic values about work ethic. Secondly, my mom and dad taught me a lot about honesty and ethical behavior and fairness. Fairness was a big thing with my mother and it’s still a big thing with me.
Who was your greatest mentor?
I have been incredibly lucky to get a number of mentors, and they started at a fairly young age. First of all, my classmates from grade school on up. We still have class reunions and everybody comes. ...
When I was in high school, I had two mentors. My journalism teacher (Dorothy Elliott), who taught me to love what came to be my career. The second was my music teacher (Jerry Laudermilk). I recall being in the White House many times and saying, "This is a tough circumstance. Some reporter is really upset with me." But Jerry Laudermilk taught me how to deal with this. That was just take it as it comes. Don’t get mad. Don’t get excited, and work your way through it. And then, when I went to Kansas State, there was a wonderful journalism department. I’m not sure I know what his title was, but he was the director of the yearbook. He mentored me all the way through school, helping me with courses and how to deal with various issues that came up in the school. We called him Chief Medlin because he was chief of the yearbook. I think his full name was C.J. Medlin.
Where did you start out?
I just read the newspapers and there was a help wanted job for a new agency that Congress had established under the Lyndon Johnson administration. LBJ had established this Appalachian Regional Commission to assist in his poverty program for Appalachia. They were advertising for a technical writer. I didn’t know what a technical writer was, but I went down and interviewed with the director of public affairs. He gave me the job. One of the great things as I look back on life is I never had to apply for a job again. Every job I’ve had since then, and there have been many, somebody came to me or they heard about me or they recommended me or something like that. So, I always tell students the first job is a crucial one. Do it right. Think about where you want to live and what you want to do and go out and get it.
At what moment did you know you wanted to be a journalist?
My first story (for the high school newspaper) was about 2 column inches and it just said that Abilene High School was going to have a basketball game against Salina next week and it was going to be a very important game for us. And the paper came out and kids came up and down the hallway saying, "Marlin, Marlin, I read your name in the paper. You wrote that great story on the basketball game. We’re gonna have a great time." I thought, "What is going on here? I’m being recognized by everybody. There’s something going on here that I like. I like being recognized for my work." That’s when I went back to journalism class and said, "I want to learn what this is all about." And I’ve loved it every day since then.
What are you most proud of having accomplished during your career?
Well, two or three things. I think first of all, having completed 27 years of government service in a number of jobs. It was rewarding. It was useful. There were big issues that I had to deal with and problems that made me happy to work on, and it was just a terrific career in government service. The second one would be serving President Reagan and President Bush. Those two gentlemen really shaped the rest of my life. They were great leaders for America and wonderful people to work for, and I felt I served them well.
How did you deal with that much pressure and stress?
I learned two very important things form working in the White House. One was that you can take a lot of pressure, if you can make yourself deal with it. The other one is I learned how much your brain can absorb and how much information you can deal with and pass out and learn and do it day in and day out throughout your life. I had never worked so hard in my life to learn things.
What is the secret? How do you remember?
One of the biggest tips, most important, is know the questions. Any good press secretary is a good listener. You listen to what the press are asking you and you know the questions. But it’s also true that you get it just by reading the morning papers. If you read three or four papers every day, you know what they’re thinking about. I used to have a rule that if I knew five basic facts about the top five subjects of the day I was the smartest guy in the briefing room.
What is the toughest question a reporter ever asked you?
One kind of toughness is when a reporter asks you about an issue you can’t talk about because it’s classified or the president has said it’s a secret between him and me. I remember President Bush called me into the Oval Office once and he said, "Marlin, I know the press are always asking you when I’m going to have a summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev," the head of the Soviet Union. And he said, "I want you to know secretly that I have talked to Gorbachev about it. We have agreed that we’re going to have a meeting in December, but he doesn’t want to tell anybody because a lot of people in the Soviet Union don’t want him to meet with the U.S. president." And the president was so good and so smart, he said, "I’m telling you the truth and I’m also telling you, you can’t use it, and I leave it to you to figure out how you do that." That was wonderful. I loved George Bush from that moment on.
How do you keep that straight?
I had to just discipline myself to make a note when I heard it: "This is classified. This is classified. This is classified, and I won’t deal with it." It’s amazing how it comes back to you. But I also made some rules for myself. For one thing, never deal with numbers. If somebody asks you numbers about anything it’s almost either you’re going to be wrong or it’s going to be classified.
What’s your most memorable briefing or experience that you had serving as White House press secretary?
In December of 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev came to America for the first time. There was great hope in Gorbachev. We had 7,000 reporters from all the countries of the world that came to Washington because they thought it was going to be peace at hand. I moved my briefing room to the ballroom of the Marriott hotel and then we did a live feed to the auditorium in the Commerce Department. I then invited my Soviet counterpart to join me in the press briefings, which had never been done before. My reasoning was that I didn’t want him briefing Soviet press on the other side of town the same time I was briefing the American press in this hotel. And I didn’t want these 7,000 journalists coming to town to all be going over to the Soviet embassy and finding out their side of things. In the end, it did lead to the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall and peace in our time. But it took another four, five years to happen.
The second most important was Operation Desert Storm, the war in Iraq with President Bush. Not everybody in America supported us, but I do think almost everybody in America knew what we were doing and why. A big part of it was between December of 1990 and March of 1991, which is essentially the beginning and the end of the actual war, President Bush gave four televised speeches to the nation. We certainly have never had a president do that before or since. Every one of them was just a straight "this is a report to you, America, here’s what we’re doing and why."
How has Washington changed since your time at the White House?
The changes have been incredible on almost every front. When I was there we always figured you had 24 hours to explain your story. Today, that’s all instantaneous. The internet is continuous, Facebook is continuous, tweets are continuous, all of these forms of new technology since then have made the job of a press secretary almost impossible. And now we have a president who wants to be press secretary, so what do you think of that? ...
The second biggest change is the partisanship in America. Now there is just enormous anger and infighting and partisan hatefulness that occurs between both political parties and between the president and the Congress and between individual members of both parties and between the press. Within the last really five years we’ve seen the press become partisan. By the time of the Trump-Hillary campaign, the media was lining up on one side or the other. The old objective media was gone.
What advice would you give to the current White House press secretary?
Well, of course we just have a new one, Stephanie Grisham, and she’s not going to give briefings like I did. Mainly because of this partisanship. They become too ugly and too rancorous. People just get up and make speeches. They want to tell their point of view. People, I mean journalists. So, she just can’t do it. If another president comes in, I think it will probably go back to being the way it was because we’re probably not going to have another president who wants to do his own press work like Trump does. But as long as he’s there, and he could be there another four years, it’s a different ballgame entirely.
What advice do you have for journalists today?
I think they just think of it in terms of new ways to carry out their work. I think they should still be good reporters. I think there should be a lot of self-examination about this taking position politically, or partisanship. I think that’s bad for journalism and I think they should consider abandoning it, at least individually. Every journalist has to consider their own conscience.
What’s your advice to the American people?
I do think they have to recognize the realities of the new partisanship. I don’t think they need to take sides. It’s probably good to have a political set of beliefs and it’s fine to support one party or the other. But I still think people do give and should give careful thought to what both sides have to say before they make up their own mind. On the one hand, that’s maybe tougher because more people are yelling at you. But on the other hand, there’s a lot more information out there. I think the American people are fully capable of handling it intellectually.
What’s your outlook?
I’m always optimistic. I think the country is doing well. I think we’re on the right track in many of the key areas.
What’s something interesting about you that most people don’t know?
Well, that I have a boat. I’ve had about three boats. I’m kind of a boat vagabond. I just go around from marina to marina looking at boats and dreaming of owning it even if I know I never will. I love living on the water.