Tony Snow's Washington Merry-Go-Round

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Tony Blankley, editorial page editor of the Washington Times, recalls making his first paid speech after serving as spokesman for Newt Gingrich, then the House speaker. Hours after predicting some congressional action, he says, "I had phone calls from lobbyists and others who thought I was giving a heads up because a few weeks earlier I had been working for Newt. I said this was my own assessment. A transition is not an instantaneous phenomenon." Gingrich, for his part, is now a Fox News commentator.

One of the most well-traveled public figures is Dorrance Smith. He worked in the Ford White House, went on to become executive producer of ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley" and "Nightline," then became a senior adviser to the first President Bush. Smith returned to ABC as executive producer of "This Week" and recently signed on as Donald Rumsfeld's top spokesman at the Pentagon.

Obviously a reporter or commentator can gain insight by seeing life on the inside. But is post-employment criticism then considered a betrayal of one's former comrades? Gergen recalls explaining such criticism to a government official by saying it was now his job to be independent. Sure, the official replied, "but do you have to be so damned independent?"

The list could fill an entire newspaper page. Bill Kristol, who was Vice President Quayle's chief of staff, is now editor of the Weekly Standard. Paul Glastris, a Clinton White House aide, now edits the Washington Monthly. Pete Williams, who was Cheney's spokesman at the Pentagon, covers law enforcement for NBC. Peggy Noonan, a onetime speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, became a Wall Street Journal columnist but took a leave in the fall of 2004 to work for Bush's reelection. Sidney Blumenthal, a former Washington Post reporter who went from writing sympathetically about Clinton for the New Yorker to joining Clinton's staff, became Salon's Washington bureau chief and is now a contributor.

Even convictions can't slow the revolving door, as G. Gordon Liddy proved by becoming a successful radio talk show host after serving time for the Watergate break-in.

"The biggest hurdle is the psychological adjustment," Stephanopoulos says. "Tony spent most of his career speaking for himself. Now he's got to squelch his opinions and really deliver the party line with conviction."

Footnote : In one of his last official acts, outgoing spokesman Scott McClellan denied that Fox News is the administration's official cable outlet.

"Is there a White House policy that all government TVs have to be tuned to Fox?" Washington Post reporter Jim VandeHei asked last week.

"Never heard of any such thing," McClellan replied.

L.A. Blogger Loses Two Outlets

The Los Angeles Times has killed Michael Hiltzik's print column and blog for posting often-disparaging comments under pseudonyms on the paper's Web site and other bloggers' sites. Editor Dean Baquet also suspended the Pulitzer Prize winner without pay for an undisclosed length of time.

While the decision was "painful," because of Hiltzik's strong reporting background, Baquet says, "it's serious because in the end he lied to people by using a pseudonym. A columnist has the most freedom of any writer at the paper. It just made me uncomfortable to let Michael continue to have that kind of freedom."

With the former CEO of Enron on trial last week, Baquet says he thought, "How would I feel picking up the column and seeing him accuse Ken Lay of duplicity? It would make me nervous, and it would make L.A. Times readers nervous, too."

Hiltzik used tough language in his blog, and while posting under fake names, he called one writer a "tool" and said a radio talk show host needed a "muzzle."

"Some people said to me that the world of the Web is different and you've got to treat it differently," Baquet says. "It was really important for me to send a signal that that was not the case."

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