By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2007
About 51 minutes into his final televised briefing, White House press secretary Tony Snow tried to calm down a rowdy room. "Let's not extend this so it becomes farce," he pleaded.
Umm, too late.
His last day at the lectern yesterday indeed featured moments of farce, moments of tension, moments of spin and moments of sentiment. The Tony Snow Show closed after 136 televised performances over 16 months, a relatively short tenure that nonetheless redefined the nature of the job.
Never before in modern times has the White House press secretary been such a celebrity figure, stopped for autographs on the street and recruited onto the political fundraising circuit. Short of perhaps Karl Rove, no other White House aide has been such a household name. And beyond that, Snow transformed the daily briefings into made-for-television jousting sessions sometimes resembling a cable television talk show.
That was as clear as ever as he parried questions from reporters on camera one last time. He dismissed one question as "a verbal game," brushed off another because he was not "going to respond to campaign documents," asked a third reporter whether she was being "self-serving" and lectured a fourth by saying, "Let me explain the facts in a democracy." He got into a long colloquy with Bill Plante of CBS News on whether President Bush's policy is an "open-ended commitment" and whether the troop buildup has worked.
"Why isn't it an open-ended commitment if we're going to stay until the job is done?" Plante asked.
"Because the job will get done," Snow answered.
"Let's hope," Plante retorted.
"Wait," Snow replied, "will you concede that there has been an improvement on the ground as a result of the surge?"
"Sure," Plante said.
"Thank you," Snow said.
"But that's not the point," Plante said.
"That may not be the point to you," Snow said, "but it is to the people who are fighting."
As feisty as the sessions have been, Snow clearly relished the give-and-take. He was known more for the clarity of his arguments than the precision of his statements, but colleagues credit him with helping to strengthen the president's public defense.
Battling a recurrence of cancer, Snow looks more haggard these days, his hair thinning and his face gaunt. But as he leaves for what he says are financial reasons, he seemed genuinely nostalgic, calling the job "the most fun I've ever had."
"I'll miss it," he said in a tone that, unlike most press secretaries on their last day, suggested he really meant it. "I love these briefings."
But Snow has made optimism and positive energy in the face of adversity a trademark and plans to speak and write on his struggles with cancer. "Life will continue," he said, "including for me."
Helen Thomas, for the last time, interrupted his prepared spiel.
"Any regrets?" she asked.
"No, not really," he said. "The only regret is that I'm not able to stay longer."
Snow also engaged in one final showdown with the more colorful denizens of the briefing room, including radio reporter Lester Kinsolving, who is known for his off-topic questions. When the briefing ended without Snow calling on him, Kinsolving shouted for attention.
"Is this a meltdown, Les?" Snow asked.
"This is your last briefing," Kinsolving complained. "You want to go out well."
"Les, please be as rude as you want," Snow said with a smile.
But he gave in and agreed to stay for more questions. He did not really seem to want to go. "This will be an open-ended commitment," he said with a laugh.
This one, though, did come to an end.