By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2006
The first time Tony Snow was agonizing over whether to leave journalism for the White House, he had lunch at the Army and Navy Club with William Safire.
"You must take this job," Snow recalls the New York Times columnist saying in 1991, "and when you do, I will write you an advice column."
But the advice column appeared the following Monday, touting Anthony Snow as a "hard hitter" with "independent right-wing credentials" who was Chief of Staff John Sununu's choice to be President Bush's speechwriting director.
Sununu quickly called to ask if this meant Snow had taken the job. "I guess it does," Snow said.
Fifteen years later, Snow has given up a lucrative television and radio career and taken on the challenge of speaking for the current President Bush. From the moment his appointment as press secretary was announced, Snow has sought out White House correspondents and listened to their suggestions about how he can improve relations between the Fourth Estate and an administration not known for embracing the press.
The president, while calling Snow a "nice guy," doesn't see a problem that needs repairing.
"I don't feel the friction, I really don't," Bush said in a brief interview. He said he was aware of "institutional friction" -- a top aide said he was referring to secrecy issues and leak investigations -- but not any personal difficulties.
"I understand the reporters have a job to do," the president said. "I talk to them every day. I don't like what they write, but they don't like what I say," he added, half jokingly.
Whether the new press secretary can have an impact, and whether Bush wants to further engage with those who make up what he calls "the filter" remains to be seen. But the former Fox News man, who began his new duties last week and is scheduled to hold his first televised briefing this week, is comfortable with his decision. "You play a much more vital role working for a president than sitting behind a mike hurling stones," he says. "I don't think too many people who write history books are going to devote specific chapters to radio, TV and other hosts."
The veteran pundit, who has spent his life spouting opinions but has never attempted the fine art of briefing, is the first to admit he's got a steep learning curve. He spent time at the White House watching outgoing spokesman Scott McClellan go through his paces. Snow also has to bone up on the dozens of foreign and domestic issues that could become part of his daily grilling.
"I'm sure the press will give me leeway for a short period of time," Snow says.
Clearly, the man is an optimist. At his first off-camera briefing Friday, complaints ranged from the overcrowded conditions in his office to his stumbling responses to certain questions.
A host of questions swirl around Snow: Can he be an effective advocate for the press, as he has promised, and still please the president's people? Will he be an active participant in policy debates, as he has been assured, or wind up out of the proverbial loop? Will his relationships with Washington reporters, who generally like him, help with Bush's coverage, at least at the margins? And will he be comfortable defending policies -- such as leak investigations that could lead to jail time for journalists -- with which he might disagree?
Snow, 50, already knows something about deflecting questions. When asked about his wife, Jill, Snow says she hates publicity and he politely insists that he will keep that part of his life private.
"I'm under a fatwa never to have so much as a surprise party," Snow says. "Lord knows she's been put through enough with my various careers."A Long-Ago Liberal
Dirk Allen has no trouble coming up with a phrase to describe the young man he knew in junior high and high school in Cincinnati: "long-haired hippie liberal."
Snow was more than that, says Allen. Varsity tennis player. President of the National Honor Society. Played in a marching band. And, in a harbinger of his future career, member of the debate team.
"I grew up in an idealistic family," Snow says. "We felt very strongly about fighting poverty and race relations, and it wasn't working." Snow's father was a teacher and assistant principal, and Snow was especially influenced by his mother, an inner-city nurse who died during his senior year in high school.
At Davidson College in North Carolina, where he sported a beard and ponytail, Snow again joined the debate team and also tried out for the baseball team. "He had a really good arm but no control," says former roommate Ed Jones, now an advertising copywriter. "You'd better duck if you were a batter. He had a great vertical leap for a white guy. He used to show that off at the most inopportune times at dances, hitting the ceiling tiles. For a guy who was so quick with words, he was pretty awkward at first" around the opposite sex.
"He was fairly intense," says Peyton Marshall, another former college roommate and now a technology executive. "He wasn't a party animal. He was a guy who always had a slightly offbeat sense of humor." Snow also tried to master the flute, says Marshall, "and the rest of us suffered through his self-teaching."
Politically speaking, Snow says he was a "socialist" in college until he started reading Marx and thinking through the implications of equitable distribution of property. "We both came pretty much as McGovernites and left kind of Reaganites," Jones says.
Snow majored in philosophy and wasn't sure what to do after his 1977 graduation. He was a caseworker for the mentally ill in North Carolina, driving tens of thousands of miles dealing with what he calls "really hard, gut-wrenching cases." He spent time teaching in Cincinnati and also in Kenya, which he says convinced him of "the incredible failure of socialism." And he spent a year doing graduate work in economics and philosophy at the University of Chicago.
Snow broke into journalism in 1979 as an editorial writer for the Greensboro, N.C., Record, followed by stints on the editorial pages of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and Newport News Daily Press.
Tom Bray, who was editorial page editor of the Detroit News when he hired Snow as his deputy in 1984, recalls him as smart, principled, funny and "disaffected from liberalism. It wasn't so much that he'd become a conservative as that he and I were having a hard time squaring our ideals with what liberalism was becoming." All this sounds like the evolution of a compassionate conservative.
While dating a Catholic woman in Detroit, Snow converted to Catholicism. He later began dating Jill Walker, secretary to the paper's editor, who worked just down the hall. "We didn't have any idea they were an item until they were pretty far along," Bray says. "He was discreet." They were married in 1987, the same year that Snow became editorial page editor of the Washington Times.
For the next four years, Snow held forth on a wide array of topics, including sex:
"Any fool can master the intricacies of sexual technique, and many have. But in focusing on the how-tos, we teach people to be jerks. The most important part of sexual relations is not lust, but love."
He also emerged as a critic of the mainstream media, and was particularly steamed during the Persian Gulf War:
"The press has gotten itself in the soup because it has behaved erratically, careening from idealism to cynicism and back. Much of the reporting from the front has been rushed, ill-informed, feckless. As a result, readers, viewers and listeners haven't gotten news. They've received a walking tour of press bias and ignorance."
And Snow did not always let George H.W. Bush off the hook. As the Boston Globe recently noted, he called the 41st president a "cipher" who "sold his party's soul" and was "an utterly removed head of state."
Bush offered him the speechwriting job anyway. Snow later became a media affairs adviser -- a "glorified op-writer," he conceded -- and buried his superiors with memos about reviving the struggling Bush reelection campaign.
When Snow's two-year stint ended with Bush's defeat, he became a jack-of-all-media-trades, writing columns for USA Today and the Detroit News, filling in on the radio for Rush Limbaugh and Diane Rehm, doing commentary for National Public Radio and appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America" and CNN's "Late Edition."
"He's about as easy a guy to work with as I've come across, but he can still kick the hell out of you," says Bob Beckel, a former Democratic operative who often appeared with Snow on television and on the speaking circuit.
Snow also appeared on a talk show at WHMM, based at Howard University. "Most white conservative commentators would feel like a duck out of water," says Juan Williams, another regular panelist who is now a Fox News contributor. But Snow, he says, easily waded into the discussions of African American issues.
In 1996, Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, a former Republican consultant who had worked with Snow in the first Bush White House, launched a Sunday talk show and hired Snow to host it.
"Tony's really a policy wonk and understood Washington, but not the mechanics of hosting," says Marty Ryan, executive producer of "Fox News Sunday." "He had to learn how to do lead-ins and how to thank guests. We rehearsed a lot, and it finally clicked after a while." Ryan also credits Snow's "sunny disposition" with helping the staff in the early months, when they did the show from historic houses around Washington because they had no studio.
Early reviews were not kind -- the Globe called Snow a "helmet-haired traffic cop" whose show was filled with "cheap gimmickry" -- and some early segments, such as a rumor of the week, were dropped. The larger challenge for Snow was establishing that despite his conservative credentials, he would be a fair and balanced moderator.
"Sometimes Republicans would call and complain that he wasn't tough enough on Democrats," Ryan says. "I think it was just that he was learning how to do live interviews."
During Bill Clinton's second term, Snow played a minor role in the Monica Lewinsky uproar. He had become friendly with Linda Tripp when they both worked in the Bush White House, and introduced her to New York literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, who suggested that Tripp start taping her conversations with her friend Lewinsky.
Colleagues sometimes grumbled that Snow wasn't tenacious enough at pinning down politicians when they fudged their positions. When major newsmakers appeared on the program, Fox producers would often ask Brit Hume, the Washington managing editor, to join in the questioning to give the interviews a harder edge.
"My role was not to sit there and club people with a baseball bat," Snow says. "You don't get the best answers from someone who's being clubbed. It was a matter of earning trust on both sides." While he continued to write a conservative column -- until Fox asked him to drop it -- he concluded that being more partisan on the air "would be an open invitation for one side to boycott the show."
During his first of several "Fox News Sunday" interviews with the current vice president, Snow began by asking whether the correct pronunciation was Cheney or "Cheeney." "A hard-nosed journalist would say, 'Why'd you ask that question?' " Williams says. "But that's Tony setting a tone. He's saying, 'We're not just going to exchange spin here; let's start on a human level.' "
Despite his television celebrity, Snow did not neglect his old friends. "He's never lorded it over people how successful he is, and that's such a nice trait," says his high school pal Allen, now a school spokesman.
When Beckel ran into some personal difficulties and television bookers were shunning him, Snow helped him get hired as a Fox commentator. "A lot of other people ran," Beckel says. "Tony was the first guy to show up."
In 2003, Fox executives believed the program had gotten a bit stale and recruited ABC's Chris Wallace to take Snow's job. Snow had always loved radio and was amenable to shifting to Fox's fledgling radio division, along with hosting a "Weekend Live" show for Fox News Channel. And, Snow says, he started researching issues intensively.
"With radio you've got your own soapbox," he says. "You realize if you're going to have opinions you'd better back them up. I kind of took a reporter's approach to talk radio." Snow was one of the few conservative radio hosts who backed Bush on both immigration and the Dubai ports deal.
The radio show was picked up by 125 stations, and top Bush administration officials -- Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- appeared periodically, as did some top Democrats. In his spare time, Snow played flute, sax and backup guitar with a rock group called Beats Workin'. Life was workin' out just fine.
And then, in the early days of 2005, Snow was diagnosed with the same disease that killed his mother.
"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."