By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
White House press secretary Tony Snow has often said he "felt that cancer was stalking me." Yesterday it caught up with him again.
Snow, 51, who beat colon cancer two years ago, disclosed that it has returned and spread to his liver, delivering a brutal blow to his family and friends and to a White House already reeling under a relentless barrage of bad news.
The development shattered some of his colleagues. Snow's deputy, Dana Perino, broke into tears as she announced the news at an off-camera briefing yesterday morning. President Bush later told reporters in the Rose Garden that he was praying for his spokesman. White House telephones rang all day with messages of concern.
"It was a jolt for everybody, to say the least," said Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president. Another aide described it as "a thunderclap" and said, "I'm just sick to my stomach." But Snow vowed to attack the cancer aggressively and return to work. "It may take a while, but I'll be back," he told a colleague who recounted the exchange.
The discovery could hardly have come at a worse time for the administration. It was the latest demoralizing event after weeks that included the conviction of a former White House aide, a guilty plea by another former official, the resignations of several other officials and a drumbeat of revelations that have jeopardized the attorney general's job.
And at a time of siege, with Bush wrestling with Congress for control of the war in Iraq, Snow's absence while he undergoes treatment will deprive the president of his most prominent public advocate. In his year at the White House lectern, Snow has become the public face of the Bush presidency, a forceful yet upbeat defender of an embattled administration whose verbal jousting and television celebrity made him a popular figure in Republican circles, even when his boss was not.
"This is exactly the time when you need an articulate, competent voice and argument," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a close ally of the White House. "The president can't go and have an argument with members of Congress and members of the press because presidents don't do that. Tony can do that. Where do you find someone like him? There isn't a bench of these people."
Bartlett said Perino will fill in while Snow decides on treatment but added that Bush is committed "to make it work for him" when Snow comes back. More so than his predecessors, Snow delegated much of the job of responding to reporter inquiries off camera to Perino and other deputies and even had them handle some briefings. At the same time, none of them has the experience on television that Snow gained at Fox News.
"He's been a good messenger for the president," said Charles Black, a GOP lobbyist who advises the White House. "But that said, there are other good people around who could be asked to fill in. And certainly as good a job as Tony has done, it hasn't made all the problems go away."
Scott McClellan, Snow's predecessor, said the news "rattles a lot of people" in Bush's orbit. "Anytime you lose a star like Tony, it's going to have impact and this is a difficult period for the White House," McClellan said. "But he has a strong and capable backup in Dana."
Snow was tapped to take over for McClellan last spring as part of a White House shake-up and quickly redefined the job. Under Snow, the daily briefing often took on the feel of a cable news back-and-forth, and the White House used him regularly on morning television and Sunday talk shows. In a departure for a presidential spokesman, he even hit the campaign trail last fall, headlining dozens of Republican fundraisers, and he remains a big draw on the speaking circuit.
But Snow has also been an enthusiastic symbol for life after cancer, preaching a life-affirming message for the afflicted. He constantly wears a yellow wristband marking him as a survivor and choked up at his first briefing last year when describing his experience. Just last week, he offered effusive praise for the dignity and optimism demonstrated by Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, when she learned her own cancer had returned.
The Edwardses reciprocated yesterday. "Elizabeth and I were saddened to hear the news that Tony Snow is once again battling cancer," John Edwards said in a statement. "Tony has been an incredible example for people living with cancer and cancer survivors -- he lives every day to the fullest and faces every challenge with courage and determination."
Snow's mother died of colon cancer when he was in high school, and he suffered from colitis for 28 years. In February 2005, during a routine checkup, he received a diagnosis of colon cancer. "Seventeen days after the diagnosis, we go in and take the whole colon out and throw it in a garbage bag," he told Cincinnati Gentleman, a magazine in his home town. He also received six months of chemotherapy.
His wife, Jill, with whom he has three school-age children, worried about his taking the White House job, associates said, but he got a clean bill of health from a doctor and took the post. Over the winter a CAT scan found a small growth in his lower abdomen, and later tests showed it had grown. Although a blood test and other scans turned up negative for cancer, Snow decided to have the growth removed.
The matter clearly was on his mind last week as he replied to questions about whether Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales would remain in his job until the end of Bush's term. "As a cancer survivor, I don't know if I'm going to be alive at the end of this term," Snow told reporters on Air Force One on March 20.
But he played down the situation to colleagues. When doctors operated Monday, they found that the cancer had returned and spread, with tumor cells on his liver. Snow called Bush about 7 a.m. yesterday to tell him the news. "His attitude is, one, that he is not going to let this whip him, and he's upbeat," Bush told reporters. "My attitude is that we need to pray for him and for his family. . . . My message to Tony is: 'Stay strong. A lot of people love you and care for you and will pray for you.' "
Snow called Perino to tell her at 9:30 a.m., just before she went to the briefing room for the morning "gaggle," a more informal, non-televised briefing. She began sobbing as she made the announcement, took a few questions and then postponed any others until a later briefing.
"It was hard news for us," she explained. "I didn't cry until this moment." But Snow, she said, was up and walking around: "He was in very good spirits. He was trying to help me with some talking points."