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As Good as His Words

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Former conservative commentator and White House press secretary Tony Snow has died of cancer. He was 53. Video by AP

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In a 2006 CNN interview, I asked Snow if he remembered who had made the following comment: "President Bush hates responding to the press, hates responding to political enemies. He thinks it's beneath him. He's got a stubborn streak." Snow didn't know. It was him, months before joining the White House staff. Rather than turn defensive, he laughed off the quote and segued into an answer about how the president was holding more frequent news conferences.

This was a man with a healthy attitude toward life, even as his body betrayed him. His rock group was called Beats Workin', but you never got the sense, no matter how many hours he put in, that he considered any of his jobs to be a grind.

While he will be remembered mainly for his 17-month White House tenure, Snow had a successful punditry career that included stints as Washington Times editorial page editor, Rush Limbaugh substitute and National Public Radio commentator, along with his service as a speechwriter for the elder George Bush.

When Snow became host of the newly launched "Fox News Sunday" in 1996, he grew into the job, dropping such early gimmicks as a "rumor of the week" to moderate a solid program. I later asked him about criticism that he was too gentle with the politicians he interviewed, never quite nailing them down.

"My role was not to sit there and club people with a baseball bat," he said. "You don't get the best answers from someone who's being clubbed."

When there were unconfirmed reports two years ago that he might become Bush's spokesman, Snow quickly returned my call and was happy to confirm, on background, that he would accept the offer if his doctors gave him a clean bill of health. He also needed to be assured of a policy role in the White House. Snow, it was clear, wanted to be a player.

But I was equally struck by his domestic duties at the time. With his wife out of town with their 13-year-old daughter, Snow was shuttling their 10-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter between lacrosse practice and piano and guitar lessons.

He was the most prominent journalist ever to take the job, and he used his talk-show skills to the fullest, becoming the administration's most visible pitchman at a time when the Iraq war was turning from bad to worse and the president's popularity was sinking. Still, Snow had that selling-ice-to-the-Eskimos quality, a relentless cheerfulness.

He made mistakes, went too far in challenging reporters' motives and probably crossed a line by moonlighting as a Republican fundraiser. But he also did something more lasting than any momentary political fight, and that was talking openly, honestly and emotionally about his cancer. In one of those chilling moments you never forget, Snow told me how he felt about receiving a diagnosis in 2005 of the same disease that had killed his mother when he was 17.

"The ghost of colon cancer stalked me from the time she died until the time I got it," he said.

When that cancer returned, Snow battled on, both in his waning months at the White House and in his subsequent career as a commentator and lecturer. My family ran into him at the airport a couple of months ago -- carrying his bag after a long day that had begun with a speech in Upstate New York -- and he looked tired and gaunt. But he was as gregarious as ever, chatting about how much time he was spending on airplanes and how he was enjoying his new life.

Snow was living on borrowed time, as he once put it to me, which perhaps is why he tried, with striking success, to milk every minute.

Terror on the Newsstands

The magazine cover is packed with canards about Barack Obama. The illustration, by Barry Blitt, shows him wearing Muslim garb in the Oval Office, a portrait of Osama bin Laden on the wall. He is delivering a fist bump to his wife, Michelle, who has a rifle slung over her shoulder.

The cover appears, at least at first glance, highly offensive. What was the New Yorker thinking?

"It's clearly a joke, a parody of these crazy fears and rumors and scare tactics about Obama's past and ideology," Editor David Remnick says. "And if you can't tell it's a joke by the flag burning in the Oval Office, I don't know what more to say."

But won't some readers see this attention-grabbing device as a slur against Obama? There is no editor's note -- a tiny line inside the magazine titles the picture "The Politics of Fear" -- and it has nothing to do with the accompanying article on the Illinois senator's rise in Chicago politics.

"If I started self-censoring myself and my writers and artists because someone might take it askance, I'd publish nothing that wasn't bland and inoffensive," Remnick says. "Satire is offensive sometimes, otherwise it's not very effective."


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