By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Fox News commentator Tony Snow agreed last night to become White House press secretary after top officials assured him that he would be not just a spokesman but an active participant in administration policy debates, people familiar with the discussions said.
A former director of speechwriting for President Bush's father, Snow views himself as well positioned to ease the tensions between this White House and the press corps because he understands both politics and journalism, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the appointment had not been officially confirmed, although an announcement is expected today.
Snow will become the first Washington pundit -- and an outspoken ideological voice at that -- to take over the pressroom lectern at a time when tensions between journalists and the administration have been running high, over issues ranging from the Iraq war to investigations involving leaks of classified information.
"President Bush hates responding to the press, hates responding to political enemies -- he thinks it's beneath him," Snow said on Fox News in March. "He's got a stubborn streak." What the president needed, he said, was "a series of vigorous defenses" of his position.
Brit Hume, Fox's Washington managing editor, said he was "a little surprised" that Snow would give up his new radio show to take one of the capital's most demanding jobs.
"I think he's excited by the idea of being on the inside," Hume said. "He believes he will be at the table when decisions are made. For someone of his bent, that's too good to pass up."
Dee Dee Myers, a press secretary in the Clinton White House, said that if Bush wants smoother relations with journalists, "Tony has stature. He understands how the press works from both sides. He has a big personality, and that can be helpful." But she noted that Snow has "a long paper trail" and would have to defend policies he has criticized.
Outgoing spokesman Scott McClellan, whose tight-lipped style led to strained relations with reporters, announced last week that he is stepping down as part of a White House reorganization being spearheaded by the new chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten. Snow will be the first career journalist to serve in the position since President Gerald R. Ford tapped Ron Nessen, an NBC correspondent, in 1974.
A senior administration official said last night that Bush is aware of the "perception of disdain for the institution of the media" on the part of the White House and wants a spokesman who will forge "a good working relationship" with journalists.
The official said the president is also looking for "a forceful advocate for the type of historical change he's trying to accomplish" and added: "We believe Tony fits the bill in both areas. He has a lot of experience on the air, which with the evolution of the briefings is something you have to take into consideration."
The last remaining obstacle faded when Snow got the results of a CAT scan that showed no recurrence of the cancer that forced him to have his colon surgically removed last year, the sources said.
Snow, 50, is particularly interested in economic and immigration issues. He intends to insist on greater access for White House reporters, said sources familiar with his plans. He has described the press corps as a beast that must be constantly fed. In a December 2000 column in the Washington Times, he referred to "Democrats and journalists (but I repeat myself)."
He has told associates he plans to function as an advocate for reporters, an approach that would run counter to the administration's previous philosophy about the position.
The question of whether to take the job -- which includes a substantial cut from his media earnings, to $161,000 -- weighed so heavily on Snow that he lost several pounds in a week. His doctors, who refashioned his small intestine to function as a colon, had given him the green light to take the job; one joked that it might give him heartburn but not cancer.
William Kristol, who worked with Snow in the White House of George H.W. Bush and was a regular panelist on "Fox News Sunday" when Snow anchored the show, invoked the Fox News slogan in saying: "It will be good to have a fair and balanced press secretary.
"An outsider with a somewhat happy-go-lucky attitude could help externally, but also internally," said Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, because staffers tend to get "so defensive after years of getting pummeled." He said Snow could also carry Bush's message on the airwaves, adding that "this White House has been amazingly negligent in putting spokesmen out day after day on radio and television."
The genial Snow, a native of Cincinnati, has served as a USA Today columnist, editorial page editor of the Washington Times, deputy editorial page editor of the Detroit News and frequent substitute for radio host Rush Limbaugh.
As a White House staffer in 1991, Snow once tried to get Bush impersonator Dana Carvey to speak to White House speechwriters so they could better understand the 41st president's syntax.
At "Fox News Sunday," which Snow launched in 1996, he tried to balance a neutral moderator's role with the aggressive conservatism he espoused in his newspaper column. At the 2000 Republican convention, Fox executives reprimanded Snow for speaking to a GOP youth group. They persuaded him to drop the column the next year.
On the program, Snow interviewed candidate George W. Bush in 2000 and, later, such top officials as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Snow was eased out of the job in 2003 in favor of Chris Wallace, and was given a weekend television show and a radio program that is also heard on XM and Sirius satellite radio.
Snow has largely been supportive of the Bush administration, especially concerning its anti-terrorism efforts, but has occasionally criticized the president for deviating from conservative goals. In February, he called Bush's domestic policy "timid" and "listless" and said Bush's abandonment of his Social Security privatization plan was "an act of surrender."
In December, Snow told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that "the lack of spending discipline on the part of Republicans has been disappointing, and frankly so has George W. Bush's inability to understand the importance of using a veto."
Snow has already gotten a taste of the job as a "piñata," as he put it last week. In his latest column, he wrote: "Helpful correspondents have told me where to go, what to use to fill various orifices, which pack animal I most closely resemble and my next-world destination."
Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.