Tony Snow Knows How to Work More Than One Room

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 12, 2006

On the morning of Oct. 2, Tony Snow did six back-to-back television interviews from the White House lawn, and one phrase came back to haunt him.

While criticizing Mark Foley, the Republican congressman who resigned over sexually graphic messages he sent to former House pages, Snow told CNN's Soledad O'Brien: "It's not always pretty up there on Capitol Hill, and there have been other scandals, as you know, that have been more than simply naughty e-mails."

Snow also told O'Brien: "You're trying to create problems. What you are trying to do is pick fights here," which she quickly disputed.

There has never been a White House press secretary quite like Snow. He is a combative presence on television and radio, relishes the repartee at daily briefings and, in a first for his position, has hit the fundraising circuit for Republican candidates. Snow brings a flashy, Fox News sensibility to the high-profile podium, which means he is increasingly popping up on newscasts and in the papers.

"Sometimes it does feel like the Tony Snow Show," says Richard Wolffe, Newsweek's White House correspondent. "There are tactics he uses that are straight out of talk radio. The extent to which he personalizes things or comes back with a one-liner, it revs up the base. They love it when he takes us on."

In an interview in his West Wing office, Snow readily acknowledges that "naughty e-mails" did not capture the gravity of Foley's graphic exchanges with teenage boys. "I shouldn't have used the words," Snow says. "I'm not going to defend having used the words." But, he says, "I did six interviews that morning and people picked on one-half of one line."

Snow says his years as host of "Fox News Sunday," and especially as a radio host, were ideal preparation for the daily briefings, because you have to "think on your feet" with callers and guests. When facing reporters, he says, "if you can't roll with the punches and give sensible answers, you're going to get killed." And, he says, "if you try to spin guys, they're going to see through it."

Part of Snow's art -- some might deem it spin -- is to openly proclaim what he is doing. Last week, for instance, after consulting with the office of House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Snow doggedly refused to field questions on what President Bush thought of Hastert's handling of the Foley mess.

"I will dodge it, and I will tell you exactly why I'm going to dodge it," Snow explained. "Because this is a question that requires knowledge of a lot of details that are not in evidence, certainly not to me, at this point."

In the five months since he succeeded the tightly scripted Scott McClellan, Snow has put his verbal agility and sense of humor to good use, and the White House has clearly given him more running room. Struggling on several fronts, from Iraq to domestic scandals to depressed poll numbers that have put the Republican control of Congress at risk, the president has never been more in need of a slick salesman. Administration officials describe Snow as a major asset.

"He definitely likes the combat," says Martha Raddatz, ABC's White House correspondent. "One of his devices is he stops and smiles at you. The megawatt smile is supposed to punctuate his sentences, but it hasn't worked as well for him lately. It's a pretty tight-lipped administration, and that hasn't changed."

CBS's Jim Axelrod recalls how Snow once issued a press release assailing a story Axelrod had done on Medicare eligibility. "He basically sent out this report calling me a liar, and then showed up at the booth smiling, with a handshake, and we had a half-hour chat. . . . He plays the affability card."

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