WASHINGTON – Ari Fleischer (search) is resigning as White House press secretary.
The public face of the Bush administration through two wars and a terrorist attack, Fleischer said he plans to enter the private sector. His replacement will likely be deputy press secretary Scott McClellan (search).
"I informed President Bush last week that after 21 years of doing nothing but government and politics ... that I have decided that my time has come to leave the White House," Fleischer, 42, said Monday morning.
"I love this job … I believe deeply about President Bush as a man and I believe deeply in his policies, but it's my time to go."
Fleischer said he'll most likely leave in July and that he wanted to step down before Bush's re-election campaign gears up.
"I want to do something more relaxing -- like dismantle live nuclear weapons," he said jokingly.
He notified President Bush of his decision Friday, and the president ended the conversation "by kissing me on the head," he said.
Fleischer served as press secretary for Sen. Pete Dominici (search), R-N.M., from 1989 to 1994 and later as spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee. Prior to joining the campaign of then-Gov. Bush in the fall of 1999, he served as communications director for Elizabeth Dole's presidential campaign.
It's not uncommon in the first two years of a new presidency that many high-level officials resign.
Fleischer said he may go on the speaking circuit and may do some writing. Married just six months ago, he told Fox News that the amount of time he spends on the job has prevented him from spending enough time with his wife.
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." But he said he plans to stay in Washington until the 2004 presidential election is over.
Fleischer said he will be more than willing to lend a hand to Bush's campaign staff.
"I've just been thinking about what I want to do, when I want to do it," he said.
Although he often jokes with reporters during the daily briefings, at times, Fleischer has found himself at odds with the White House press corps and had an uneasy relationship with some senior Bush aides, but he said the departure was his idea.
A cautious and calibrating press secretary, Fleischer has been the public voice and face of the Bush White House through the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the war in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom, 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. But he also sought to ease tensions between the White House press.
"I think he was the right person for the job and for this president," said Joe Lockhart, former White House spokesman for Democratic President Bill Clinton. "The president wanted somebody who was loyal, who was disciplined, someone who needed to keep a secret. I think he was an articulate spokesman in a difficult situation, working for a president who demanded secrecy beyond what was really called for."
According to reports, Fleischer privately accused 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 campaign.
While his pronouncements on Bush policy have been in step with a White House that has kept a tight lid on information, Fleischer has had some fumbles.
For example, leading up to the war with Iraq, Fleischer denied reports that Bush was meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair abroad. The trip was announced the next day.
He also goofed once 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.
Cheney actually had been whisked away to a secret location because of the same potential threats to the country that prompted the government to heighten the public terror alert soon after.
Fleischer also acknowledged shooting himself in the foot when he snapped that "one bullet" in Saddam Hussein's head would be cheaper than a war to topple the Iraqi dictator.
But Fleischer also showed his more humorous streak.
This year, he defended Bush's plan to deny normal collective bargaining and other workers' rights at the 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."
Two senior White House officials said Bush hasn't yet decided who will replace Fleischer. They agreed that Texas native McClellan is the likely replacement, but there are other candidates, including Republican strategist Ed Gillespie and Pentagon spokesman Victoria Clarke.
One week out of college, Fleischer came to Washington and began work in politics. He was planning on staying in the area in that field for only a year, and wound up staying for over 20.
Fleischer said he hopes to eventually move back to New York.
Fox News' Jim Angle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.