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."
After the president's televised speech on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Axelrod pressed Snow on why what was billed as a nonpolitical speech had become a vigorous defense of the Iraq war. Snow shot back that if Bush hadn't discussed Iraq, "it would have been seen as dereliction, and you guys would have been out here just clubbing me like a baby seal." Some viewers called Axelrod to say that he had been disrespectful.
Snow, says Axelrod, "has got a talk show host's knack of taking whatever question is asked and steering it into a two- or three-minute response that is a fairly strong defense of the administration's policies. He's probably dealt with angry callers before, and maybe we're nothing more than angry callers to him."
Sometimes the exchanges get heated. When NBC's David Gregory asked why Bush had not acknowledged more shortcomings in an assessment of the battle against terrorism, Snow accused him of expressing "the Democratic point of view." Gregory vigorously objected.
"Let's not let you get away with being rude," Snow said.
"Excuse me, don't point your finger at me," Gregory said. "I'm not being rude."
"Yes, you are," Snow insisted.
Snow says he "felt bad" about what happened and later called Gregory, saying he could ask as many follow-up questions as he wanted if he let Snow finish the answers. "I wanted to make sure we didn't have any more of those exchanges, because I think he's a good reporter," Snow says.
Sometimes Snow's freewheeling style produces a pratfall. In July, he inflamed the issue of stem cell research by saying that Bush believes the federal government should not "finance something that many people consider murder. He's one of them." Snow had to back off during the ensuing controversy, saying he had "overstated the president's position."
Reporters cut Snow some slack during his shakedown period, when he would sometimes plead ignorance on various issues. "Tony's made some statements he regrets, and he gets a pass on some days because he's new," Raddatz says. "But I think that little honeymoon is over."
Like every press secretary, Snow also must function as a reporter, ferreting out information from within the administration. When Bob Woodward's book "State of Denial" charged that Bush and his team were not being honest about the mess in Iraq, Snow spoke to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and Henry Kissinger, among others, which helped him challenge various points in the book. But it was his glib sound bite -- "The book is sort of like cotton candy; it kind of melts on contact" -- that was widely picked up.
Away from the cameras, journalists give Snow mixed grades for providing information. They say he often delegates detailed questions to his deputy, Dana Perino, and other assistants. Snow says he can answer questions "to a certain depth" but that it makes more sense for reporters to deal with staff members who specialize in the subjects.
Others praise Snow for his accessibility. "I have e-mailed him at 6:30 in the morning on a weekend, and I have a response within a half-hour," Axelrod says.
Snow has pushed for the president to grant more interviews -- Bush spoke to every major network during the 9/11 anniversary -- and to continue to hold more news conferences than he did during the first term. As for his own spate of television interviews, Snow says the White House staff thinks he can be helpful, but he is wary of accepting too many bookings.
"You don't want to get overexposed," he says.
Snow initially hesitated to take the job, after enduring surgery and chemotherapy for colon cancer last year, until his doctors gave him a clean bill of health. While Snow begins each day with a 6:30 a.m. staff meeting, he says he has managed to take most weekends off and visit a family retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
But any spokesman's schedule remains unpredictable. After news broke Sunday night that North Korea had tested a nuclear bomb, Snow held a 1:30 a.m. conference call with White House pool reporters to field questions on the incident.
Having held jobs ranging from Washington Times editorial page editor to Fox weekend host to syndicated radio talker, Snow understands the rhythms of journalism. Having worked as a White House speechwriter for Bush's father, he knew something about the machinery of government. But he felt that the press secretary's post offered the possibility of far more influence than he had wielded as either a mid-level staffer or a talking head.
Snow's celebrity has produced a stack of invitations to appear at GOP fundraisers. No other press secretary has helped his or her party raise money, a tradition grounded in the notion that the person who is the public face of an administration should not moonlight as a partisan operative. But Snow, after getting a green light from White House lawyers, has been hitting the road to raise cash.
"I'm not going out and calling out Democrats by name," Snow says. "These aren't red-meat speeches. I'm staying out of the bare-knuckle stuff. If it ends up compromising my ability to be press secretary, we'll stop doing it. If I was pounding on the podium and calling [Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid nasty names, that would be a problem."
Joe Lockhart, a press secretary in the Clinton White House, says he has no ethical objection to Snow raising money for the Republicans, but that it "makes the job harder" by distracting Snow from his main responsibilities.
As for Snow bringing entertainment values to the briefing room, Lockhart says: "That may sound trivial, but it's not. It's hard to get your message out to reporters who aren't coming to your briefing."