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Press Secretary Relished Job

Conservative commentator and former White House press secretary Tony Snow has died of cancer at age 53.

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By Peter Baker
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 13, 2008

Tony Snow, the former television and radio talk show host who became President Bush's chief spokesman and redefined the role of White House press secretary with his lively banter with reporters, died yesterday at Georgetown University Hospital after losing a high-profile battle with cancer. He was 53.

Snow had colon cancer diagnosed and treated in 2005, a year before joining the White House staff. He found out it had returned after an operation in March 2007 to remove what doctors thought was a benign growth in his lower abdomen. The cancer had spread to his liver, forcing him off the podium for treatment. Snow vowed to fight the disease and return to the briefing room but announced six months later that he was leaving his $168,000-a-year job because he needed to recoup the income he lost when he left his job as a radio and television host. He later joined CNN as a commentator.

In a statement issued by the White House, Bush said: "Tony was one of our Nation's finest writers and commentators. . . . It was a joy to watch Tony at the podium each day. He brought wit, grace, and a great love of country to his work."

In his brief tenure as Bush's public advocate, Snow became perhaps the best-known face of the administration after the president, vice president and secretary of state. Parlaying skills honed during years at Fox News, he offered a daily televised defense of the embattled president that was robust and at times even combative while repairing strained relations with a press corps frustrated by years of rote talking points.

He was lively and entertaining, he could be disarmingly candid when ducking a question, and he did not hesitate to retreat when it became clear he had gone too far. He could tell reporters to "zip it" one minute and defuse tension the next by admitting that he knew so little about a topic that he was "not going to fake it." He enjoyed the give-and-take of a tough briefing, but his smile, upbeat energy and glib repartee seemed to take the edge off sometimes rough rhetoric on behalf of an unpopular leader and unpopular policies.

When The Washington Post's Bob Woodward disclosed internal White House maneuvering to push out then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Snow tried to dismiss the account with a memorable put-down. "The book is sort of like cotton candy," he said. "It kind of melts on contact."

When a flamboyant radio reporter demanded to know whether Snow was going to evade a typically offbeat question, Snow chuckled. "No," he said, "I'm going to laugh at it."

In short, Snow led the first press briefing for the talk-show era, and he played the role with gusto. As the first working journalist in 30 years to serve as White House press secretary, he loved nothing more than jousting with reporters and expressed disappointment when they did not challenge him enough. To him, the job was the "Disney World of communications," as he once termed it. But at times, it seemed to be more about theater than information. He demonstrated little interest in the nitty-gritty of policy and delegated most off-camera reporter inquiries to his deputies. Precision was not his strong suit; translating difficult decisions into easily digestible explanations was.

Joining the White House as part of a staff shake-up in spring 2006, Snow quickly became a star among dispirited Republicans thirsty for an aggressive champion. In a break with tradition -- and, to some, crossing a line too far into open partisanship -- the White House used him to headline Republican fundraisers across the country as he became a high-profile advocate for the administration. He was the first press secretary in years routinely asked to sign autographs and pose for pictures while on the road. He made the rounds of talk shows, hit the lecture circuit and answered questions on a conservative Internet blog.

ABC News correspondent Ann Compton, president of the White House Correspondents Association, said yesterday that Snow was "the first press secretary who chose to use the podium as a way to argue the president's case -- not just in the president's words, but in his own."

"He was the first one who came from editorial writing and a pundit position, and he really did use that to articulate Bush's point of view."

Snow's freewheeling style took him too far on occasion. At one point, he said Bush believed that destroying embryonic stem cells was "murder." He later had to retract the comment, saying that he "overstepped my brief" and that the president would not use that term. Snow also apologized after initially seeming to brush off the seriousness of sexually explicit messages sent by then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) to underage House pages by referring to them as "naughty e-mail."


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