Press Secretary Relished Job

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."

And he occasionally let his passion draw him into personal exchanges with reporters, such as when he accused NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory of expressing the "Democratic point of view" and "being rude."

Gregory retorted, "Don't point your finger at me." Snow later called Gregory to apologize.

Just before Snow left the White House last year, Gregory conducted an extended interview with him about his experience with cancer.

"It was a very emotional interview," Gregory recalled yesterday. "It was important for him to do this on camera . . . because he wanted to send a message to people who are living with this disease."

"I did battle with him in the press room," Gregory added. "But experiencing him one-on-one like that while he was fighting cancer just gave me insight into what a courageous guy he was."

Snow leavened his tense tenure with humor and music. He was friends with the members of Jethro Tull and played flute, saxophone and backup guitar in his own band, called Beats Workin'. He also appeared on National Public Radio's weekly humor show, "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!"

From the beginning, Snow was open about his battles with cancer. His mother had died of colon cancer when he was in high school, and he frequently said he felt he had been "stalked by cancer." It struck him in February 2005 when a checkup found that he had the same cancer that killed his mother.

Then a Fox News talk radio host, Snow opted for aggressive treatment, enduring two operations, six months of chemotherapy and the removal of his colon. When White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten asked him to replace Scott McClellan as press secretary in April 2006, Snow first got the endorsement of his doctor.

Cancer, Snow later said, was "the best thing that ever happened to me" because it brought him closer to his wife, Jill, and their three young children. He constantly wore a yellow LiveStrong wristband popularized by bicycle racer Lance Armstrong and choked up at his first televised White House briefing when discussing his experiences.

Snow underwent frequent scans and checkups, and doctors found a growth in his abdomen in March 2007. When they operated that month, they discovered that the cancer had returned and spread to his liver. Snow returned to the White House podium five weeks later, then left his position in September.

Robert Anthony Snow was born June 1, 1955, in Berea, Ky., and grew up in Cincinnati. His father was a teacher and assistant principal, and his mother was an inner-city nurse. By Snow's description, his was a liberal, idealistic family that cared about poverty and race relations. In high school, Snow was president of the National Honor Society, a varsity tennis player and, not surprisingly, a member of the debate team.

He attended Davidson College in North Carolina, where he sported a beard and ponytail and was a self-described Marxist. But he grew disaffected with American liberalism before graduating with a philosophy degree in 1977.

He shuffled from job to job, first as a caseworker for the mentally ill in North Carolina, then as a teacher in Cincinnati and Kenya before doing graduate work in economics and philosophy at the University of Chicago.

In 1979, he discovered journalism. He started as an editorial writer for conservative editor Terry Eastland at the Greensboro Record in North Carolina, then followed Eastland to the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk and eventually moved to the Daily Press of Newport News. In 1984, Snow became deputy editorial editor for the Detroit News, where he met and married the editor's secretary, Jill Ellen Walker. In 1987, the same year as their wedding, he became editorial page editor at the Washington Times.

President George H.W. Bush recruited him to the White House as a speechwriter, although infighting later relegated him to a backwater job in the media affairs office. After that, Snow wrote a syndicated column and branched out to broadcast, filling in for radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Diane Rehm and doing commentary on NPR, CNN and ABC's "Good Morning America."

Roger Ailes, who met Snow in the first Bush White House, hired him in 1996 to launch a Sunday show for the upstart Fox News network. Snow made a national name for himself during the next seven years at the helm of "Fox News Sunday." He also played a bit part in the Monica Lewinsky scandal that nearly felled President Bill Clinton: He introduced a friend from the first Bush White House named Linda Tripp to book publisher Lucianne Goldberg, helping set in motion a chain of events that resulted in an investigation and impeachment of the president.

After Snow was replaced at "Fox News Sunday" in 2003 by Chris Wallace, he launched a Fox radio talk show, heard on 125 stations nationwide, and was sometimes tough on the second President Bush. In columns and on the air, Snow lambasted Bush as an "impotent" president with a "listless domestic policy" who had "lost control of the federal budget." At one point Snow said, "George Bush has become something of an embarrassment."

When Bush announced Snow's appointment as press secretary, the president made reference to the criticism. "I asked him about those comments," Bush told reporters, "and he said, 'You should have heard what I said about the other guy.' "

Survivors include his wife and their children, Kendall, Robbie and Kristi Snow, of the Mount Vernon section of Fairfax County; and his father, Jim Snow, and stepmother, Dottie Snow, of The Villages, Fla.

Peter Baker is a former Washington Post staff writer who covered the White House. Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.

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