The White House press corps can be surprisingly sentimental. Take the case of Tony Snow, the departing press secretary. When Snow announced the return of his cancer, dry eyes in the briefing room were few.
The ultra-conservative Snow has been much loved by the mostly liberal White House media. Why? First, Snow is one of us. He is a journalist, albeit more commentator than reporter. Second, Snow is just a hugely likable man; that has nothing to do with politics or journalism, that is just the human dimension of the man.
Like many correspondents, I have known Snow for a long time. I first met him when he was editorial page editor of The Washington Times–a blithe spirit in a somber newspaper. This quality of being in some way lighter-than-air is the essential core of Snow, it seems it seems to me. It has enabled him to float above controversy, and to be forgiven views far out of the mainstream of even Washington conservative thought. That is Snow in his writing and broadcasting–especially the latter, where as a sit-in for Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, Snow was more radically conservative than such fixtures of the right as George Will and Charles Krauthammer.
The public work of the press secretary takes place, when the president is in Washington, twice a day at the “gaggle” and at the “briefing.” The former is an on-the-record curtain-raiser for the day, usually held around 9 a.m. The latter is the half-hour, on-camera briefing that has become a staple of C-SPAN.
The private work is counseling the president and the top echelon of his administration on press strategy and the collective mood of the fourth estate. The press secretary might advise a presidential press conference, an exclusive interview with a network, or a session with editorial writers.
For the president to understand the media mirror, he and his press secretary must have rapport; a merely correct and professional relationship will not do the job. Mike McCurry, another popular press secretary, was highly effective because he and President Clinton were pals. I watched them joshing together on presidential trips and was involved in an incident in which Clinton was embarrassed by something McCurry told me on the record. McCurry said that Clinton did not understand the media or the Congress. Tough stuff. When Tim Russert challenged Clinton with these accusations on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Clinton laughed them off. McCurry and Clinton had rapport. Snow has been a frequent player in the Oval Office. He and Bush have rapport.
Others have been much less successful. Most notably in recent years, Dee Dee Myers for Clinton and Scott McClellan for Bush. Myers floundered and McClellan was stiff and uncomfortable with the media, suggesting that neither enjoyed the full confidence of their master nor an organic understanding of the media.
One of the most successful relationships between spokesman and chief executive was not in Washington but London. That was the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and her spokesman, the irascible Bernard Ingham. His reverence for Thatcher was tender as well as supportive. He once told me, “I’m trying to get her to rest more.” Phew!
Clearly, Snow has been good for Bush in the dark days of his presidency. Snow said he is leaving because he needs more money. This does not convince. At $168,000 a year, Snow is paid more than most print journalists in the press corps, and many broadcast correspondents. Snow may have made very good money at Fox and with a radio show, but he knew the pay scale when he entered the White House. He clearly made less when he was a speech writer for President George H.W. Bush and not much at The Washington Times, which is known for the modesty of its pay scale.
Is there something else at work? Has Snow wearied of defending policies he has lost his faith in? Before signing up for the press secretary job, Snow had been critical of the competence of the administration. Has that been confirmed from within? It is a question worth asking.
But I think it is about money, health and family. I believe that despite Snow’s public assurances that his cancer is at bay, he is worried about the future of his young family. Not all of his arguments have had unassailable merit. That one does. Good luck, blithe spirit.