Politics & Policy

Tony Snow, Happy Warrior


Former White House Press Secretary Tony Snow died on Saturday after a long battle with cancer. National Review Online asked a group of colleagues and friends how they will remember Tony Snow.

Barbara Comstock

“Let’s make our case plainly, happily, and confidently – after all, we do have truth on our side.”

That was Tony Snow passionately making his case the last time I saw him, speaking at the April 10 Media Research Center gala this year. He looked and sounded joyful and wonderful. That night he received, appropriately enough, the William F. Buckley Jr. Award for Media Excellence. Tony always was the same happy warrior that he was when I met him 17 years earlier in 1991 at some Heritage Foundation wonkfest. It was an honor to call him a friend and to fight with him for many a conservative cause.

Tony was that rare individual who remained unchanged by fame, fortune, mistreatment, or illness. He loved the roller coaster of a life in two volatile fields — journalism and politics — and he even gracefully jumped the tracks between them. He could genuinely enjoy the ups and downs of those worlds because he understood that the most important part of life happened elsewhere. There, in the bosom of family and faith, he was planted in all that is good, sappy, corny, and all-American. He was great at talking the talk — and boy, what a gift he had for putting a great-looking face on cheerful conservatism! But it was in walking the walk — and walking it boldly and bravely that he excelled.

We are blessed that he chronicled his passions and joy about his family, his country, his faith, and even his cancer in print, radio, and TV. His celebration of life was infectious. In an interview last year, he spoke of what he expected in the next life: “It’s different, it’s better, it’s bigger.” And he provided a beautiful picture of what he will be doing until we next see him: ”You’re waiting on the other side rooting them [his family] on.”

 – Barbara Comstock is a partner at Corallo Comstock.

Holiday Dmitri

When I first moved to D.C., I came to town hungry to sink my teeth into Beltway politics, but green as to how Washington worked. My first job was for Tony Snow, who hired me as research director of his new start-up talk radio show on Fox. I was part of a small team — five including Tony — and in such an intimate setting, I got to know the man. What struck me most impressive about him was his humanity in a town replete with ego-topping buffoonery. He reached out with open heart to those around him, from his listeners to his coworkers. (When my father became ill, Tony called to send his prayers.) I was there the day he was diagnosed with cancer. It was heartbreaking news and I got angry thinking how such an affliction could fall on one of the most decent men I knew. But Tony remained as steadfast and optimistic during those first hours as he was his remaining years on earth. Tony set the highest standards for himself and made those around him strive to do the same. During my last conversation with him, I couldn’t make myself say good-bye to him. Instead, I left it at “thank you.”

– Holiday Dmitri, former research director for The Tony Snow Show.

Ed Gillespie

Tony often got a laugh in public comments by noting that “Washington is a town where nobody takes friendship too personally.”

It was especially funny coming from him, because he was the exception to the rule. I know. He was my friend. And it was personal.

When Tony was a brilliant young editorial writer at the Detroit News and then the Washington Times, I was press secretary to a brilliant junior congressman from Texas, Dick Armey. Tony loved ideas, Armey had a lot, and we talked frequently. When he became former President Bush’s speechwriter, we stayed in touch, and I would share thoughts about messaging with him.

After the 1996 elections, he and I were guest speakers on that fall’s National Review Cruise. Cathy and I had fun hanging out with Tony and Jill because they got such a kick out of each other. Over time, he became a cornerstone of the FOX News Network and I became chairman of the Republican National Committee. But throughout that time we each became something much more important to us — fathers.

In the Fort Hunt area of northern Virginia, our kids played in the same sports leagues. I’d see him at the soccer field on cold November mornings, more interested in the outcome of Kendall’s game than the election that Tuesday. He taught one of my best friend’s daughters how to hit a softball, and he would be spotted poolside many Saturday mornings with timer in hand. One Sunday morning I ran into him in the Safeway check-out line, still in the suit and tie I’d seen him wearing only an hour earlier as host of Fox News Sunday. The esteemed Sunday morning talk-show host had a gallon of milk in one hand and a big package of diapers in the other.

I was a guest on his television and radio shows often. On the air, he’d grill me about legislation, campaigns, polls, and politics. Off the air, we talked about kids, boats, and dogs.

A little over a year ago, in addition to being Tony’s friend and neighbor I became his colleague when I joined the White House staff as President Bush’s counselor. Tony had been press secretary for nearly a year, and he was incredibly gracious in helping me learn the ropes. His daily briefings were so much fun to watch they could have aired on pay-per-view as easily as C-SPAN. I’m sure the broken mold from his time as press secretary is lying around the West Wing somewhere.

Our time together was limited, however, as Tony’s duties as a husband and father came to outweigh his duties for the president. I missed seeing him every day, but still saw him in our area. When we hosted an event at our home to raise money for research dollars for a rare disease that had stricken a mutual friend’s grandson, Tony didn’t even check his calendar before agreeing to be the honored guest.

And now an unfortunately too-common disease has taken my friend, neighbor, and coworker — and Jill’s wonderful husband and Kendall, Robbie, and Kristi’s devoted father. Tony’s unique voice will be missed in the world of politics and commentary, but I will miss him personally.

– Ed Gillespie serves as counselor to the president.

Lucianne Goldberg

“Important hair.” That’s how I was told I would recognize Tony at our first meeting. It was a lunch appointment on the old Duke Ziebert’s in the early 90s. “Tall . . . with important hair,” a friend had advised. They didn’t warn me about the smile. When Tony Snow smiled you caught your breath. In back of that smile was the happiest, sweetest, most self-assured and comfortable man I have ever known.

But, Tony’s most amazing quality did not show itself until he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He fought. He talked about it. He described what was happening to his body, the emotional roller coaster, the hope and fear of it all as though he were talking about nothing more annoying than a root canal. He spoke to friends of friends who shared his fate openly, warmly, and for hours if they needed him. He fought it by being happy. Even after terrible medical procedures, he could make you laugh until your face muscles froze. When you hear politicians blithely promising that they will fight for you it is nearly obscene when one has seen what a real fight is.

Tony didn’t moan. He didn’t keen. He didn’t throw himself about in an orgy of self pity. Faith, family, friends, and fun sustained him and us. The fight was there when the important hair went away, came back, and then went away again. The smile remained until the end. When you remember him, smile. He said he wanted it that way.

Long after I forgot the hair, there was the smile. None of us will ever forget that smile.

– Lucianne Goldberg publishes lucianne.com.

Griff Jenkins

“Surfer Boy.” That was what Tony called me on the radio show that I helped produce for him before he left for the White House.

“Surfer Boy” was what he still called me, even as he sat in his West Wing office of the White House. Never too big to forget the old days or his old colleagues whom he still held in the highest regard. That was Tony Snow.

He taught me more about optimism than anyone I have ever met. Without fail, every concerned e-mail inquiring about his fight with cancer was met with declarations that he “pitied” the tumors’ chances — even when he could no longer write e-mails back.

Many speak of his character, faith, and family. But above all, the true lesson of Tony’s life was how to live our lives: boldly, with zest for loved ones, fearless of adversity, and smiling all the way.

In retrospect, I cherish that many hard-to-get interviews that we had worked diligently to arrange gave way to his son’s guitar lessons or his daughter’s swim meets.

Our hearts break for his wife Jill and their three kids: Kendall, Robbie, and Kristi. But I take comfort in knowing what the rest of the world will tell them about who their father was and what he meant to so many who knew him.

I will remember the infectious smile and the indefatigable courage with which he faced every day. I will remember Tony Snow by trying to live my life with particular attention to the example he set for all of us. There’s not a moment to waste… before we all see him again. 

– Griff Jenkins is a correspondent for FOX News Channel. He was Tony Snow’s radio producer.

Kathryn Jean Lopez

I was a curious young conservative trolling America Online for political news and there was Tony Snow. I think he was some kind of political-forum moderator at the time there and, knowing him as the voice when Rush was off (he was a Limbaugh Show guest-host), I lived boldly (as he would urge) and wrote him. And, to my delight, he wrote back. And it wasn’t a mere polite formality to him — he wrote back at length, with enthusiasm and encouragement to a young, eager conservative who wanted to do what he was doing: transforming a love for America, politics, and public policy into real service.

Tony helped make Washington accessible to a kid who might otherwise have shied away from a world different than any one she — or anyone she knew — knew firsthand.

His generosity and optimism are examples to emulate. The memory of his Catholic public witness has the power to help transform the culture. 

– Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.

Peter Robinson

FOX News decided a few years ago to shoot a documentary about President Reagan’s address at the Brandenburg Gate, Roger Ailes sent Tony Snow and me to Berlin for three days. Tony was to host the documentary. The speechwriter who had drafted the address, I was to tag along, helping to arrange interviews and providing some historical background. I expected a lark. It turned out to be a lot more like work. The reason for this was simple. Tony refused to toss anything off.

At our first shoot, outside the Schloss Bellevue, the official residence of the president of Germany, Tony was supposed to stand in one place, look into the camera, and then talk for all of about 30 seconds. Before the camera even rolled, Tony had spent half an hour reworking the script, then pacing back and forth across the lawn, muttering to himself as he worked out his delivery. (Watching this, a German protocol officer approached me, alarmed. “Somezing iss wrong?”) At last signalling the crew that he was ready, Tony laid down half a dozen takes, each of which struck me as flawless. Then he studied each take as the cameraman played it back. And then he laid down half a dozen more. Tony sustained this ration — roughly an hour of unremitting effort for every 30 seconds of final product — throughout our stay. By the end of each day, I’d had it. Not Tony. He loved it all so much that he displayed even more energy in the evening than in the morning.

One evening, eager to show me the new Berlin — this was my first time in the city since the wall had come down — Tony walked me through the Brandenburg Gate and up Unter den Linden, through the historic city center. Lifeless under the Communists, Unter den Linden now bustled with traffic, pedestrians, construction. On one corner, Tony suddenly stopped. Then he began to laugh. On this very site, he explained, had once stood the headquarters of the East German Communist party. What occupied the site now? A Rolls-Royce dealership. “No doubt about it,” Tony said. “Our side won.”

On our final evening in Berlin, Tony and I went for a walk down the Ku’Damm, the main street in what used to be West Berlin, then took a table in an outdoors café or biergarten. Tony ordered two pilsners of weißbier — sweet, heavy, delicious — and we sat talking in the gathering dusk. Tony told me about Jill — her strength, her sense of humor, her insistence on keeping Tony and the children at a remove from politics and the media. They had decided to buy in Mount Vernon, he explained, because it was far enough from downtown Washington to seem almost normal. Now they had bought a place on the Eastern Shore. “It’s just a weekend place, but it gets us out of town together as a family, and the kids just love it.” Tony Snow was a consummate journalist, a patriot, and a star. But when you sat him down over a beer, what he talked about was his family.

– Peter M. Robinson is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and host of Uncommon Knowledge.

Karl Rove

He would generally arrive at the 7:30 A.M. senior staff meeting a few minutes late, but crackling with energy as he sat down at the eastern head of the table. He’d speak near the top of the meeting, summarizing the news of the day and the focus of the White House press corps, giving us a taste of the battles he’d be waging that day.

He was a passionate advocate. With constant good humor and deft insights, he kept on the offense. We felt better with him on the front line, a warrior ready to make the case, inform, and enlighten. He was so frenetically energetic that a couple of aides had to keep him organized and all the projects he eagerly gobbled up on track. It was fun to watch him in action.

And he was cherished as a friend and colleague. His faith so clearly informed his life: Tony knew his Maker loved him and had a plan for him. He had confidence that whatever the challenge, it wasn’t worth worrying about.

We all knew this wasn’t likely to have a happy ending, which made us cherish our time with this remarkably good person. He went too quickly and way too soon.

 – Karl Rove is former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.

Don Stewart

Anyone who knew Tony knew how important his family was to him, so whenever I had to call him at home, I did so reluctantly. But one time, something or other seemed important enough to interrupt whatever was going on in the Snow household. It would turn out to be one of the last times we spoke on the phone, but it left a deep impression on me of what a remarkable man Tony was. Looking back, I don’t even remember what the issue was that I thought was so critically important. All I remember is the noise in the background when Tony picked up the phone: his kids calling for him to return to a ping-pong game — a plea that he quickly and happily answered.

And I remember thinking: This man is the White House Press secretary. He’s at the top of our profession. And yet there is no doubt to anyone that his family comes first. He didn’t try to deceive himself or others into thinking that work was more important, however important that work was. He found the time to play ping-pong with his kids. He also found time, of course, to do a magnificent job at his profession. I admired him for both.
While I was toiling later that night on some press release or statement that even I can’t remember, he was busy being the dad that his kids will never forget.

 – Don Stewart is communications director for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

Peter Wehner

The best contribution I made to the Bush White House was my (inadvertent) role in bringing Tony Snow on board.

Tony and I spoke by phone in the aftermath of an e-mail I had sent out in my capacity of director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives. During the course of our conversation, I mentioned to him my admiration and friendship with Josh Bolten, then the director of the OMB. Tony told me he knew Josh well from his time working for President George H. W. Bush and had a similarly high regard for him. I suggested a lunch among us.

Between the time I set up the lunch and the actual get together, Josh was named chief of staff. We went ahead with the meal, which was typically informative, interesting, and delightful. Tony was bubbling with ideas, and we were eager to hear them. Before the lunch began, though, Josh pulled me aside and said that he’d like to meet with Tony alone afterwards, in order to have a candid discussion with Tony about the state of our press operation.

I left, Josh and Tony met, and, though I don’t know this for sure, I suspect this is where the seed for hiring Tony as press secretary was planted. Several weeks after the meeting, Tony was announced as the new press secretary. Those of us working in the White House drew two immediate conclusions from this: First, Josh was willing to make important changes and do so in an intelligent and wise way; and second, after years have having gone without one, we were at last going to have a press secretary who would use a rhetorical sword and shield on our behalf. We finally had in place a person who could articulate the president’s agenda in a way that was informed, principled, and accessible.

Tony became a key member of the team and brought to this job, as he did to all his jobs, energy, enthusiasm, a set of core beliefs, and a radiating joy. No press secretary before Tony was invited to attend our monthly “strategery” meetings, which was a gathering of top White House officials; when Tony joined the administration, we were thrilled to give him a seat at the table.

As best as I can tell, Tony was liked and admired by everyone who knew him. But where respect turned into something even deeper was in how Tony dealt with his battle against cancer. He handled it as well as anyone possibly could — with openness, courage, and grace. And when he said that cancer was the best thing that happened to him, it was both believable and even made sense. He meant by it, I think, that cancer deepened his love for his family and friends and made him view each day, and all his important human relations and endeavors, as gifts and blessings.

The strongest impression I take away from my friendship with Tony is not professional but personal. Tony was a committed Christian whose life was a vivid testimony to his faith. His faith was deep and authentic. He spoke about it easily and in a way that was inviting instead of off-putting. It was obvious that it was central to who he was, which is why it was an attractive quality to the rest of the world.

Tony Snow fell in love with the Lord, who has now called him home. One got the sense that for Tony, his hope lay in his understanding that his true home was the City of God, even as it is for many of us who served with him and grew in our affections for him. But that hope is now mixed with grief, for we have lost a wonderful public servant, a man of character, and a life-affirming individual. His wife Jill and his three children have lost a husband and father who loved them deeply and faithfully. They will see him again one day, and on that day they and the heavens will rejoice. But between then and now, there will be tears and broken hearts as well as poignant, joyful memories. That is the price of knowing and losing a great human being. And Tony Snow was a great human being.

 – Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

NR SymposiumNational Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.


The Latest