Press Secretary May Be Ready to Leave the Circus

By Dana Milbank
Friday, August 31, 2007

White House press secretary Tony Snow sounds as if he's had about enough.

At yesterday's press briefing, CBS News's Bill Plante asked about a new report by the Government Accountability Office showing problems in Iraq.

"There are a lot of reports," said Snow. "It's a season of reports."

CNN's Ed Henry inquired about the "16 spy agencies" that wrote a National Intelligence Estimate.

"Sixteen spy agencies?" Snow answered reproachfully. "You're talking about intelligence agencies."

And don't even bother asking him about Sen. Larry Craig. "Thank you for the question," the spokesman spoke. "I've already given my answer."

"No, you didn't," pointed out April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks.

"Yes, I did," Snow retorted, then reconsidered. "Okay, I gave the answer I'm going to give."

Plante detected a bit of snippiness. "Your tolerance level seems to be slipping," the veteran newsman observed.

"Really?" Snow replied. "Am I getting cranky like you? Wow."

Snow said earlier this month that he'll be leaving his position before the president has left his. But he hasn't said when.

When The Post's Michael Fletcher asked him about the truth of reports that Snow would be departing before the end of the year, Snow advised Fletcher to "stand down" and added a hoary cliche: "When I have something to announce, I'll let everyone know."

Speculation around the briefing room is that Snow is nearing that point.

And who could blame him? The former Fox News host suffered a cancer recurrence earlier this year, and he has the admirable desire to earn more money for his family than a government salary provides.

If he stays on the podium, Snow can look forward to more questions like the ones he got yesterday: about a Republican senator's arrest for disorderly conduct in an airport restroom; about the resignation under pressure by the attorney general; about reports showing the Iraq war is going poorly and costing more money; about Republican defections on Iraq; and about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

If he leaves, he can look forward to considerable lucre. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer asked for $50,000 a speech when he left the job, and Snow is at least twice as good. The Snow wit -- which the spokesman uses to thwart reporters in search of more substantive answers -- would find a natural home on the talk circuit.

For the benefit of those trade associations considering booking a Tony Snow speech, here's a sampler of his recent one-liners.

On why President Bush didn't call Barry Bonds the night he broke the home run record: "The president was asleep when Barry Bonds hit his home run, and Barry Bonds was asleep when the president came to work today."

On some overheated criticism of Bush by former president Jimmy Carter: "Sometimes social graces are something worth demonstrating in public."

On the Cuban leader's prediction that a Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama presidential ticket would be a winner: "I think it is safe to say that Fidel Castro is not an expert on the workings of an active democracy."

Snow has found that the wiseguy retort works nicely when he can't give (or doesn't know) the answer. Would he preview Bush's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin? "No." Could he pin down the date when an Iraq report would be released? "I can pin it down. I'm just not at liberty to."

At times, Snow makes the joke on himself to counter the notion that he's out of the loop. Earlier this month, he flashed a photo on the briefing-room screens of an important national security meeting, then noted that he was not in the picture. "I will note that that was approximately 30 seconds before your press secretary hotfooted into the room, being the last in," he explained. "They started two minutes early, and I got there on time."

Asked at another point whether each White House official had a resignation letter on file that the president could accept whenever he chose, Snow answered: "No, unless someone has written one for me and stuffed it in the desk and I'm unaware of it."

Far more often, he turns the barbs on his questioners. When Helen Thomas began one of her customary grillings of Snow earlier this month, Thomas got out only the words "On Iraq --" before Snow reacted with mock surprise: "No! From Helen?"

Responding to a multi-pronged Iraq question: "You're dancing from lily pad to lily pad, so let me try to hit each lily pad." When one questioner persisted in a line of inquiry that Snow said he wouldn't answer, Snow proposed: "Okay, continue, and then I'll shut you down."

A potential disadvantage for Snow as he leaves for the speaking circuit: He won't have the kind of material he gets every day in the briefing room. There is, for example, Raghubir Goyal, from an obscure Indian American publication, who yesterday asked Snow about a report he had heard on WTOP radio that "bin Laden was dead in 2005 because of kidney failure."

"Look, I'm not going to tell you what we know or don't know about bin Laden, but I thank you for passing on what occurred on WTOP yesterday," Snow answered.

April Ryan attempted a playful follow-up. "Is bin Laden on dialysis?"

Snow pretended to bang his head on the lectern. "I don't know," he said. "For the record, I am not."

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