Tony Snow's Washington Merry-Go-Round
Monday, May 1, 2006
In the summer of 1996, Tony Snow, a former speechwriter for the first President Bush and the brand-new host of "Fox News Sunday," welcomed to the program George Stephanopoulos, a top political adviser to President Clinton.
The interview went smoothly enough, but some conservatives were mad at Snow because he didn't press his guest hard enough.
Ten years later, Stephanopoulos is a Sunday morning talking head for ABC News and Snow is the newly anointed spokesman for Bush's son, both of them having whizzed through the fastest-spinning door in Washington.
The trek from politics to journalism and back again has become so commonplace that nobody bats an eyelash anymore, except for some media traditionalists who believe that their business should not become a refuge of former spokesmen, strategists and spinners. But when someone like Snow makes a second trip across the divide, the issues get more complicated. How, for instance, does he wave away his previous criticism of the president he now serves?
"It's an interesting and legitimate question," Snow says. "You've got to do a lot of thinking about going from journalism to a political role."
Once his press secretary days are over, Snow says, "I certainly would not be eligible for being a White House reporter. But you can draw a distinction between pundit jobs and hard reporting jobs. You have to say you have sympathies and opinions and be open about it. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to go back to 'Fox News Sunday.' "
David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, returned to journalism after separate stints with the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations.
"When you go back and forth a couple of times, as Tony presumably will do, it imposes certain obligations on the person," Gergen says. "I believe in the importance of a discreet interval passing. If you jump from one to the other too quickly, it's very confusing who you're speaking for. When you're writing or appearing on television, you have to be thinking about: Who am I trying to serve here?"
Snow, of course, never pretended to be a straight reporter. As a columnist, editorial writer and TV and radio commentator, he trafficked in conservative opinion (though he tried to assume a fair and balanced role during his seven-year run as host of "Fox News Sunday"). So as a "practicing right-winger," as Snow once put it, it was a shorter sprint for him from the Fox microphones to the White House podium.
Stephanopoulos says he grappled with "the exact opposite process" when he joined ABC after Clinton's first term. He "went through an evolution because I had different jobs" at the network, he says, but it is "inarguable" that it took time to change the public's perception of him. Stephanopoulos was at first a liberal pundit on the "This Week" round table, then became an all-around political analyst and now hosts the Sunday show and serves as chief Washington correspondent.
It is a well-worn path. Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press," worked for Democrats Mario Cuomo and Daniel Patrick Moynihan before quitting politics in 1984. Chris Matthews, host of "Hardball" on MSNBC, had worked for Jimmy Carter and Tip O'Neill. Joe Scarborough, who has a nightly show on the cable network, is a former Republican congressman.
Mary Matalin was political director of George H. W. Bush's 1992 campaign, then went on to co-host a CNBC show (with former Clinton spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers) and CNN's "Crossfire" before joining Vice President Cheney's staff in the first Bush term. Her husband James Carville and Paul Begala, both former Clinton advisers, also worked at "Crossfire" while serving as informal advisers to John Kerry's presidential campaign. The now-defunct "Crossfire" provided a pit stop for Pat Buchanan after his 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns. When CNN would not take him back after his 2000 White House bid, Buchanan co-hosted a talk show on MSNBC -- with another "Crossfire" veteran, former California Democratic Party chairman Bill Press.