Ari Fleischer is a bought man. The former press secretary under George W. Bush, best known for threatening post-9/11 dissenters from the White House press podium and laundering the lie about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, is now a PR flack for the LIV Golf Tour, the “sportswashing” fig leaf of the House of Saud.
There is a great deal of toxicity in the sports landscape, but the LIV Golf Tour might be the most poisonous. Posing, and perhaps succeeding, as a competitor to the PGA Tour, its slogan is “Golf, but louder.” That’s extremely inaccurate. It should be “Golf, but (somehow) uglier.” Already, golf is a sport of exclusivity and restriction that takes an incredible toll on the environment, and in much of the United States and most of the less-verdant world, it constitutes an inexcusable waste of water resources. One of these places is Saudi Arabia, where the ruling House of Saud is many things: autocratic, repressive, violent… and golf-obsessed. To both quench their duffer’s thirst and sportswash their horrific international reputation, the Saudis have created their own golf league, signing some of the biggest names in the game to contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. This is just one part of their “Vision 2030” program by which they hope to host both the World Cup and the Olympics and to present a shiny, sportswashed face to the world.
Unfortunately, the new face is basically the old face with a PR firm, which is where Fleischer comes in. Hired several months ago, he organized a recent LIV tour press conference, where a reporter was forcibly ejected for asking the wrong kinds of questions, as his colleagues tried to get players to answer fun queries for the whole family like, “Would you also play a tournament owned by Vladamir Putin?” Yet Fleischer gushed about it all, calling the disaster “incredibly accessible, open, and reporters got what they wanted, which was access to the players.” He also praised the House of Saud as some kind of sporting rebel force, saying that it was “seeking to bring change to the sport, which not everybody wants,” but “it’s one of the best opportunities for players and an opportunity for fans to see golf in a different, more entertaining light.”
Then, amid months of debasing himself for his new owners (sorry, “clients”), Fleischer decided on Sunday, September 11, to retire his long-standing Twitter tradition of “live tweeting,” moment by moment, what he experienced on September 11, 2001. He tweeted, “I’m still amazed by the reaction my tweets have gotten. But now it’s time to let it rest. There is nothing new to say or reveal. Thank you for reading and for caring about our nation’s history. May God Bless America.” Immediately, Twitter users and sites like HuffPost and Media-ite pointed out that perhaps it was awkward for Fleischer to take part in his annual “9/11! Look at me” tradition given that his new clients rule the country of most of the attackers, or perhaps someone frightening told him to stop. Unsurprisingly, Trump has also gotten on the Saudi gravy train by hosting LIV tournaments at his courses in Doral and Bedminster, pooh-poohing any criticism. One wonders if access to his golf course was all he was selling.
It must be said that the golfers aren’t babes in the woods here. The LIV tour’s biggest grab thus far was multi-time Grand Slam champion Phil Mickelson. All it took was a nine-figure paycheck. Mickelson said after his signing, “Saudis are scary motherfuckers to get involved with. We know they killed [Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.” Phil Mickelson then apologized. Not to the families of the executed but to the Saudi royal family.
Fleischer’s job will be familiar to him: a hatchet man keeping the Phil Mickelsons of his world and the media in line so the House of Saud and its American enablers can get this tour off the ground in the face of widespread disgust. For the quislings like Fleischer and lickspittles like the Trumps, this is about profit. But the House of Saud is hunting much greater game: the future. It craves global leadership and a sheen of respectability. It sees sports as a bridge to get there, and it sees Ari Fleischer as just the guide to help it during this journey. The Saudis were successful in finding someone for sale. But they erred, because when it comes to Fleischer, everyone already knows he has a price.