From the New Kid, Proceedings With Caution

Press secretary Tony Snow, left, talks to White House reporters after his first off-camera media briefing.
Press secretary Tony Snow, left, talks to White House reporters after his first off-camera media briefing. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
By Dana Milbank
Saturday, May 13, 2006

Depending on how you look at it, Tony Snow's first briefing as White House press secretary yesterday morning started either 18 minutes late or 12 minutes early.

Shortly before the start of his 9 a.m. "gaggle" -- the daily off-camera briefing -- the White House paged reporters to say the gaggle would instead start at 9:30. But to the dismay of reporters showing up at 9:30, Snow had begun the briefing, at 9:18.

Kelly O'Donnell of NBC News was steamed. "This was 9 a.m., then pushed back to 9:30, then I walk in at 9:20 and it's already well underway," she protested.

"It's my fault," Snow confessed. "It had to do with the vagaries of the schedule today, and I apologize."

The correspondents were equally irked about the venue; Snow had tried to move the gaggle from the White House briefing room back to the press secretary's office, where it had been before the 9/11 attacks caused a surge in attendance. "I thought it was a little more informal," Snow submitted.

But it became barely controlled chaos when everybody from Time magazine to the Hokkaido Shimbun showed up, filling the room and pouring out the door. "There's a lot of us out here in the hallway, and we can't hear any of this conversation!" called out the Associated Press's Jennifer Loven, one of 60 jostling reporters.

Snow melted. "We'll move it back into the briefing room," he conceded. "I had this wonderful idea that this would be nice and collegial and relaxed, but it obviously at this point is just a mess."

It was 9:29. Snow's first official edict as press secretary had survived 11 minutes.

But if the new press secretary stumbled on the logistics, he offered a refreshing humility.

Has President Bush changed his mind on immigration? "You're asking me a state-of-mind question that predates me," Snow replied. "I'm not even going to try to fake it."

Asked a question by a Russian journalist, he answered: "I will apologize, as the new kid on the block. For today, I'm not going to handle international issues or currency issues. I do not wish to set off global tempests because I frankly just don't know enough on those."

The new-kid strategy proved disarming, particularly when he got questions about the latest revelations on the administration's surveillance of telephone records.

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