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From the New Kid, Proceedings With Caution

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.

Pressed about the Justice Department ending a probe of the National Security Agency because lawyers couldn't get security clearance, Snow reached for a red folder. "You'll forgive me, but I'll do the talking points on this because, again, as the new kid on the block I'm not fully briefed into everything." After reading the legalistic bullet points, he added, apologetically: "I hate to read from a sheet of paper."

Snow's disdain for the paper was apparently genuine. Asked whether there was a date for Bush to sign the new tax cut next week, he deferred to deputy Dana Perino, who gave an unequivocal "no." Later, reading out next week's schedule, Snow discovered that the signing will be Wednesday. "I should have read my own paper," he said with apologies.

The former Fox News commentator showed some candor that could get him in trouble in his new role. Asked about the HUD secretary who claims he was fibbing when he said he denied a contract for political reasons, Snow said "the president accepts that."

He's not waiting for the inspector general's report?

"Well," Snow revised, "at this point the president is supporting Alphonso Jackson."

Uh-oh. "At this point?"

"You're getting me ahead of my brief," Snow retreated. "I don't know any more than I told you."

So did Bush and Jackson talk? "I think they have, but I don't know. I don't want to mislead you on that."

Snow was aggressively casual with the reporters. "Good morning," he called out, sitting at his desk with his White House ID tucked into his shirt pocket and his shirt sleeves rolled up to reveal a yellow wristband. "There's coffee behind you if you want some." He made no effort to hide the briefing papers on his desk. "All of you can read upside down," he said. "Nothing of very pressing interest."

The new kid seemed to wrestle with how far he could go without getting in trouble. Asked about National Guard troops on the border, Snow began an answer but then paused. "Uh, well," he said, pausing, again, "I won't get ahead of my brief on this."

Snow's bosses in the White House needn't worry: The guy does know how to draw the curtains. Sipping from a paper coffee cup with the presidential seal, Snow had an arsenal of no-comments when asked about the NSA: "Can't confirm or deny. . . . I will reiterate the points he made yesterday. . . . You'll have to ask General Hayden. . . . You'll have to ask the folks on Capitol Hill. . . . I can't comment. . . . You will have to ask the Senate committee."

He also defended a recent increase in campaign-style news releases issued by the White House called "Setting the Record Straight" that seek to discredit media reports. His offer to give reporters a heads-up "if it has to do with things you've written or done" did not seem to placate his listeners.

The first Snow briefing was nearing its end. Giving him the benefit of 20 minutes of hindsight, ABC's Martha Raddatz asked him what he was thinking of changing about his new job. "Well," he said, now standing so that everybody could see and hear him, "apparently the gaggle."

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