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Come Again?

Tony Snow at the White House
"You play a much more vital role working for a president than sitting behind a mike hurling stones," says former Fox News man Tony Snow, the new White House press secretary. (Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)

"The ghost of colon cancer stalked me from the time she died until the time I got it," he says.

Snow opted for an operation that would remove his colon and refashion his small intestine to function in its place. "The scariest part was between the diagnosis and surgery," he says. "Your imagination just runs away with you. You're in a position of complete and total ignorance about what's inside you."

He took off several weeks during what turned out to be two operations and several rounds of chemotherapy. But even as he was healing, Snow found that "you get freaked out" by the experience. Once, while working out on an elliptical machine in his garage, Snow briefly convinced himself that he must have brain cancer. It turned out to be allergies.

Jones recalls Snow telling him, after learning of a friend whose melanoma had returned: "I just got a reminder that we live on borrowed time."

"I think the situation with his mother left him very attuned to mortality, how close we are to death," says Jones. "That's why he's always been a grab-for-the-gusto kind of guy."

Man in the Middle

More than a few Washington eyebrows were raised when the new White House chief of staff, Josh Bolten, said on "Fox News Sunday" that Snow would have to decide whether the White House briefings would continue to be televised. "I think that will be Tony Snow's first test to see what kind of power player he really is and whether he's able to establish the right kind of relationship with the press," Bolten said.

What kind of power player ? Was that a not-so-subtle challenge to the new hire to lay down the law with the press corps? And if so, why would Bush hire a TV star and then pull the plug at the podium?

Some print reporters want the cameras out, saying the briefings have degenerated into high-decibel theater in the decade since the Clinton White House turned the sessions into a television show. But the networks like the ready availability of sound bites and many people have grown accustomed to watching the briefings on cable or, more recently, on the Internet.

"I'm agnostic on it," Snow says. He will discuss the issue with White House correspondents, and "if it's better with the cameras off, we'll probably do it. My guess is that you're not going to eliminate them entirely."

In a rerun of the circumstances surrounding his first White House stint, Snow got the job despite his recent criticism of the president, including columns declaring that Bush was "timid" on domestic policy and had become "something of an embarrassment." Privately, White House officials were thrilled when liberal critics trotted out the quotes, believing that they showed Bush had tapped an independent thinker and not a toe-the-line loyalist.

In the week before he joined the White House, Snow found himself juggling domestic duties at his home near Mount Vernon. His wife had accompanied their 13-year-old daughter on an out-of-town school trip, leaving him in charge of their 10-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter and getting them to lacrosse practice and piano and guitar lessons. Family, he insists, will always come first.

Some friends were surprised that Snow accepted Bush's job offer, given his recent health problems. "Why he is doing this is absolutely beyond me," Beckel says. But "he has got a great deal of spiritual faith."

And that may be what becoming the public face of an administration in trouble requires: a leap of faith.

"I agonized a lot about whether to do this," Snow says. "Now I have no doubt. It's just your gut."

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