Politics & Policy

The Breath of Fresh Air at the Bush White House

How Tony Snow made things better.

Things were not going well for the Bush White House when Tony Snow arrived as the new spokesman in May 2006. The Iraq war was going to hell, the White House was distracted by the ongoing CIA-leak investigation, and George W. Bush’s job-approval rating had fallen to 31 percent in the Gallup poll, the lowest it had ever been up to that point.

On top of all that, the White House did not have an effective spokesman behind the podium in the press room. Scott McClellan was well-connected and loyal — well, that’s the way it seemed at the time — but tended to give rote, repetitive answers when challenged by reporters. The White House simply wasn’t reaching out and engaging the press corps in a productive way during a difficult time. Josh Bolten, newly elevated from the head of the Office of Management and Budget to White House chief of staff, decided to make a change. He got in touch with an old friend, Tony Snow.

“He and I knew each other in the first Bush White House,” Snow recalled in a conversation with me a few days before he started the job as spokesman. “He was doing policy work and I was doing speechwriting. We didn’t keep up with each other, but I gave him a call when he was OMB director and said let’s have lunch. It turned out the day we had lunch was the day he was announced as chief of staff.”

It was a lucky day for Snow, but much more so for the White House. Snow brought obvious gifts as a communicator, plus an impossible-to-dislike personality, and — not to be underestimated — conservative cred.

One often-heard criticism of the White House at the time was that the president didn’t tolerate dissent and wasn’t interested in hearing from anyone who disagreed with him. But in his thousands of hours on radio and television, as well as his syndicated column, Snow had taken a lot of shots at the Bush administration. He had said that the president had “become something of an embarrassment” to Republicans running for office; that he had “lost control of the federal budget and cannot resist the temptation to stop raiding the public fisc;” that he “has a habit of singing from the Political Correctness hymnal;” and that he “has given the impression that [he] is more eager to please than lead, and that political opponents can get their way if they simply dig in their heels and behave like petulant trust-fund brats, demanding money and favor — now!”

The fact that the White House hired Snow suggested two things. One, it could, in fact, tolerate bringing in an outside critic. And two, it really, really needed help. Just yesterday, we got a hint that there were some very highly placed people in the White House who didn’t seem to hold Snow’s statements against him. “I frankly agreed with him on nearly everything, and I’m generally viewed as pretty conservative,” Vice President Dick Cheney told Fox News Sunday. “I’m not sure that that’s saying something nice about Tony in some circles, but I always thought of him as a guy who understood very well the purposes of government and that they were limited, and that there were some things government shouldn’t do that we are best able to do for ourselves. And I thought Tony was an effective articulator of that. He was a tough critic of the Bush administration. Before he came onboard as press secretary, he obviously had written some tough criticism of us.”

Snow’s arrival was an immediate breath of fresh air for the White House communications operation. He set out to talk to reporters in front of the camera. That didn’t cause them to stop criticizing the White House, and it didn’t cause the war in Iraq to go better, but it did give George W. Bush an appealing and effective voice appearing daily on television. “Here they had a guy who could really parry with you, who could really joust with you, and who was not afraid to do that,” says David Gregory, the NBC White House correspondent who has done his share of jousting with spokesmen. “He could go on as a guest and really kick it around.”

So Snow became the best face the administration ever had. “Tony raised the bar for all future press secretaries,” Dana Perino, Snow’s deputy who now holds the press secretary’s job, told me. “He was especially effective talking about matters of national security — he understood the threat, he believed in the mission, and he had tremendous respect for our troops. He held the podium during the toughest days in Iraq, and we were grateful for his steadfastness in communicating that we would prevail if we didn’t let politics get in the way.”

There is a lot more to being press secretary than just the daily briefing. Taking charge at a troubled time, Snow worked to get the administration’s message out in ways beyond TV. “Tony was a transformative press secretary,” another deputy, Scott Stanzel, told me. “He was obviously skilled at the back-and-forth with reporters in a way none of his predecessors could match. In addition, however, he was a great advocate on the radio, and with columnists, bloggers, and supporters. He broke the mold and changed the way White House communications operations will think about conveying the president’s message.”

And he did it while dealing with an illness that made his achievement all the more remarkable. As he underwent chemotherapy for his second bout with cancer, Snow wanted to use his position to talk to people about the disease. When Gregory approached him about a story on the subject, he quickly agreed. “He had clearly made a decision that he wanted to be an advocate of how you live with cancer,” Gregory told me. Snow allowed Gregory and his cameras to accompany him to a chemotherapy session, and Snow spoke candidly about his experience with the disease. “It was an amazing day,” Gregory recalled. “Just incredibly moving. I really respected him and admired the kind of man he was.”

That was the effect that Tony Snow had on people. Yes, he raised the bar. And yes, he broke the mold. But in the end, what everyone shared was that admiration for the kind of man he was.

  — Byron York is White House correspondent for National Review.


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