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Last Updated: Monday, 14 July, 2003, 18:51 GMT 19:51 UK
Fleischer bids farewell
Ari Fleischer with Helen Thomas
Mr Fleischer praised the press, even erstwhile adversary Helen Thomas
The voice of the White House finally cracked with emotion as Ari Fleischer broke off a briefing to thank a "city of people" who had helped him in as spokesman for George W Bush.

The most public face of the Bush administration shared laughs and jokes with White House journalists after his final press conference on Monday.

But the press corps put Mr Fleischer through his paces one last time with question after question about the inclusion of unsubstantiated allegations about Iraq's nuclear programme in the president's key State of the Union address last January.

The row even spilled over into good-natured ribbing of the press secretary with a journalist telling Mr Fleischer he could not guarantee that a goodbye gateau was not actually the "yellow cake" uranium that Saddam Hussein was accused of trying to obtain.

"Well, if it is, I'm sure we'll find it," a smiling Mr Fleischer retorted.

Mixed atmosphere

He was applauded as he made his last entrance to the White House briefing room which has been the scene of some tense exchanges with reporters.

But the party atmosphere was put on hold as Mr Fleischer addressed the usual barrage of questions, only once joking "Can Scott answer that?", referring to his deputy and successor, Scott McClellan.

Some White House reporters are unlikely to miss the outgoing spokesman, whom one described as "displaying the charm of a cold glass of water".

Bald never looked so good! All the girls in my office are mesmerized when you speak!
Ari Fan Club
But that correspondent, Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times, said Mr Fleischer's mood had lightened visibly in recent weeks.

Even with the Bush administration under fire over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, she said Mr Fleischer "has grown remarkably sunny as his incarceration in the briefing room has come to a close".


That good cheer will have served him in good stead when he was drenched by a fire hose on his return from last week's tour of Africa with Mr Bush.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer is drenched in fun as he prepares to step down
A "press spray" photo call became literal for Mr Fleischer after the Africa trip
BBC correspondent Michael Buchanan in Washington says that Mr Fleischer had clashed several times with reporters, and had an uneasy relationship with some members of the Bush administration, although Mr Fleischer says his decision to leave is entirely his own.

He plans to join the lucrative lecture circuit frequented by former politicians such as Rudy Giuliani and Al Gore, and to do some private communications consulting, he has said.

But the recently married Mr Fleischer will not be leaving politics completely - he will raise funds for George Bush's re-election campaign beginning in the autumn.

An ardent baseball fan, the outgoing spokesman told the Denver Post newspaper he would also like to work with young athletes in the future.

He keeps seven signed baseballs on his desk, he told the paper, including one signed by every member of the World Champion 2001 New York Yankees, his favourite team.

Another bears the names of the team he plays with in Washington - "a bunch of old men who play hardball", he told the paper.

No juicy details

Mr Fleischer is planning to write a book, but it may not contain juicy revelations about the relatively leak-proof Bush administration.

"I'm not the kiss-and-tell type," he told the Denver newspaper.

His personal loyalty to Mr Bush seems to be beyond question.

President George W Bush
Mr Fleischer is very loyal to his boss
He has repeatedly said working with the president is among the best parts of his job.

And he says that despite the apparently adversarial relationship with the press corps, he sees himself as an advocate for the press within the White House.

Helen Thomas, the hard-hitting doyenne of the White House press corps, said she believed Mr Fleischer "had a pretty tame press corps to deal with, as reporters felt the pressure of avoiding confrontation in the 'patriotic' surge that followed the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq".

He told her he had "no scores to settle" as he left his job.

While such claims might be "a relief", she said dryly in a column for Hearst newspapers, "we await his book".

Ms Thomas was a particular target of vitriol on the pro-Bush website, which includes an Ari Fleischer fan club.

"Bald never looked so good! All the girls in my office are mesmerized when you speak! Big words are a HUGE turn on! Keep it up! Loves from Seattle!!" wrote one fan.

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