By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
To paraphrase Howard Baker's immortal question: What didn't Tony Snow know, and when didn't he know it?
The answer: A lot, and frequently.
When will President Bush roll out his new Iraq policy? "We do not know," Snow said at yesterday's White House briefing.
When did Bush decide to postpone the speech? "I don't know exactly when," the president's press secretary said again.
Has everyone working on the policy read the Iraq Study Group report? "I don't know," came the refrain. "I'm assuming -- but I don't know."
After Snow spoke multiple times of the "urgency" surrounding Iraq, CNN's Elaine Quijano asked him, innocently, "Tony, what does 'urgency' mean?"
"Well, I don't know," he said. "You guys keep using the term."
Quijano pointed out that Snow himself had used it, forcing Snow finally to spill the beans. " 'Urgency' means that you want it done as quickly as possible, and you want it done right," he proffered.
When Snow took over as White House press secretary earlier this year, reporters found it refreshing that he was willing to admit when he didn't know something. This has become rather less refreshing as Snow, while claiming access to Bush's sanctum sanctorum, continues to use the phrase -- more than 400 times so far in televised briefings and interviews. Sometimes, it seems more of a tic than a response; usually, it's a brushoff.
Why so many 'dunnos'? "Because I don't know all," Snow explained, knowingly.
On Monday, reporters wanted to know whether newly confirmed Defense Secretary Robert Gates would attend White House meetings on Iraq policy. "I don't know," said Snow. Would the Iraq experts visiting the White House talk about the Iraq Study Group's particulars with Bush? "I don't know." Was there anything in the report that the administration hadn't already considered? "I don't know. Again, good question. I don't know. I mean, there are some -- again, I don't know."
In recent days, the "I don't know" reply has greeted queries about whether the administration would talk to Iran and Syria, Pakistan's plans for Kashmir, benchmarks for reducing violence in Iraq, the process of preparing the federal budget, when Bush might name a new U.N. ambassador, and whether the president would address the nation about Iraq. Even the seemingly obvious -- whether Bush would be outlining "a different course in Iraq" -- stumped Snow. "I just -- I don't know," he said.
The causes of Snow's befuddlement have been large and small. What type of sculpture did Vladimir Putin give Condoleezza Rice? "I don't know." What books is Bush reading? "I don't know which they are." Will Bush send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq? "I don't know."
Occasionally, Snow employs a variant on the refrain: I'm not going to tell you. Asked recently whether Bush would say that the United States is winning in Iraq, Snow answered: "I'm not going to tell you what the president would say."
Unsurprisingly, this method has done some damage to briefer-questioner relations. It doesn't help that Snow, though admired for his quick wit, has been lobbing names at his inquisitors. After labeling as "partisan" a question from NBC's David Gregory last week, Snow accused CBS's Jim Axelrod yesterday of asking a "loaded" question; the two men exchanged unpleasant looks. Snow further branded a question by Fox's Bret Baier as "cynical" and one from Quijano as "facile."
The press secretary employed many variations on "not going to tell you" yesterday. ABC's Martha Raddatz pressed him to characterize Bush's talks with Iraq experts. "I'm not going to," said Snow. Caren Bohan of Reuters asked whether a personnel shakeup was discussed. "I'm not going to talk about anything that may or may not have been discussed," he said, adding: "I don't want you to interpret it either way, other than as a principled stonewalling."
Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times took one more try at getting an account of the meeting. "I wanted to re-ask" the question, he said.
"Does that mean I have to re-not answer it?" Snow wondered aloud.
Questioning about Bush's meetings persisted, and Snow switched back to don't-know mode. He was asked about a New York Daily News report that Bush had claimed privately that historians would vindicate him, saying, "I'll be dead when they get it right."
"I don't remember that," Snow said.
"Can you confirm that he did not say that?" asked Victoria Jones of Talk Radio News Service.
"I don't want to confirm or deny, I just don't know," said Snow. "It doesn't sound like something he would have said."
Jones clarified the context. "Oh, I don't know," said Snow, contributing a final "who knows?" to the discussion.
It was getting late in the briefing. Raddatz tried one more time to pin down a likely date for Bush's Iraq rollout. "I honestly don't know, Martha," the spokesman said.
The cameras were shut down, and reporters crowded around Snow to ask him a few more questions before he left. The results were little changed.
Baier asked whether Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was the only lawmaker to meet individually with Bush on Iraq. "I don't know," said Snow.
NBC's Kelly O'Donnell asked about a replacement for the Saudi Arabian ambassador. "I don't know," said Snow. "I don't know. I really don't."