Transcript

Tony Snow Named White House Press Secretary

Ron Nessen
Fmr. White House Press Secretary under President Ford
Wednesday, April 26, 2006; 3:00 PM

Ron Nessen , former White House Press Secretary under President Ford , discusses the announcement that former Fox News commentator Tony Snow will succeed Scott McClellan as spokesman for the White House. Like Snow, Nessen was a journalist before taking the White House post.

Tony Snow Becomes White House Press Secretary , ( April 26, 2006 )

The transcript follows.

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Bethesda, Md.: Is it a sign of this White House's desperation to reconnect with its base that they have sold a portion of the nation's policymaking table to a journalist? What policy-oriented expertise does he bring? I.e, does he know anything about Arabian Horses? (sorry)

Ron Nessen: Maybe he'll ride an Arabian horse to work? Seriously, a good press secretary does not have to be a policy expert. He does have to attend the meetings and hear the discussions and watch the policy decisions being made. He must be able to relate accurately what the President has decided to do about policy issues and why. That is the basic role of the press secretary. My rule was that I tried to answer reporters' questions as I thought Ford would answer them if he were conducting the briefing himself.

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Lexington, Ky.: Why did Jerry ter Horst resign as President Ford's first press secretary?

Ron Nessen: Jerry disagreed with Ford's pardon of Nixon and resigned as a protest, Also, he did not believe he could explain and defend an action he disagreed with.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm in a position where I deal regularly with the press and I find being humorous and self-effacing to be effective in building my credibility, the press-source relationship and convincing them that the information is good. But the higher the level of spokesman/women, the less humor I see. Do you think humor is a good technique? If so, is there a way to use it in some of these federal positions that's not being used now?

Ron Nessen: You are so right. The Press Secretary needs a good sense of humor. I wish I had a better sense of humor when I was Ford's spokesman. I had a bit of a short temper. Mike McCurry is a perfect example of how the press secretary can defuse hostile confrontations with reporters by keeping his sense of humor.

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Fairfax, Va.: It does not surprise me that President Bush would pick a conservative as his Press Secretary but why someone from the ULTRA Conservative Fox News Network? These folks are the most opinionated and seen to have a hard time behind impartial in their reporting. Wouldn't you think he would pick someone who would better get along with both the conservative and liberal press?

Ron Nessen: Whatever conservative political bias you perceive in coverage of the Fox network will have nothing to do with how Tony Snow does his job as press secretary. If he has the same image of the job's function that I had, he will try to accurately convey to reporters what the president has done and why he's done it. That's the role of the press secretary as I perceive it, and I can't see how the the perceived political leanings of his former employer will affect his performance as press secretary.

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Alexandria, Va.: I don't understand the big deal about Snow. Isn't all of Fox News already the press arm of the White House?

Ron Nessen: See my answer to Fairfax, Virginia.

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Jessup, Md.: The Snow appointment shows that the press secretary job has sunk to a new low -- pundit, ideologue, plastic Fox "journalist" with small j, doesn't it? If current anchors signaled the end of legitimate TV evening news, doesn't Snow's new job signify the end of any pretense that the press secretary is there to inform or tell the truth? A new low for our democracy.

Ron Nessen: See my answer to Fairfax, Virginia.

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Bethesda, Md.: Given the findings of a University of MD study that Fox News viewers were the most misinformed about Iraq leading up to our invasion, should we expect a further dumbing down of the electorate with this appointment?

Ron Nessen: See my answer to Fairfax, Virginia.

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Washington, D.C.: A bit off topic, but I was wondering why Snow was "eased out" of Fox's Sunday show. Even though I'm a Democrat I enjoyed his sense of humor. Chris Wallace still seems a bit stiff in the job.

Ron Nessen: Well, I guess that the short answer would be: network politics are even more convoluted and incomprehensible than presidential politics. Seriously, I don't have any idea why Tony was replaced on the Fox Sunday show. Maybe he just wanted to sleep late on Sundays!

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Washington, D.C.: Is it common to bring in someone who was more a newscaster-type than an McClellan or Fleischer, but does he have the skills needed to handle the media?

Ron Nessen: Before Tony's appointment,I was the last working journalist to be tapped for press secretary. All the others, until now, were PR people or government public affairs officers. I believe a journalist as press secretary has some advantages: he or she knows first hand what kind of information reporters need...and he or she can use their reportorial skills to dig information out of the various White House offices.

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Rockville, Md.: How will he compare to Scott McClellan? Do you think as a mouthpiece for Bush he'll just be repeating the same non-answers McClellan gave?

Ron Nessen: As I've alluded to in other answers, Tony should benefit from his previous service as a journalist. I think his toughest chore will be to persuade President Bush and others in the White House to drop their defensive attitudes toward the news media and to take the time to explain their actions and to educate reporters about the many complex issues facing our country.

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Grand Rapids, Mich.: You said that J.F. Ter Horst resigned as press secretary because he disagreed with the Nixon pardon. I remember the Detroit papers of that period running the story that Ter Horst resigned, not because of his feelings about the pardon itself, but because he had been misled by the Administration as to whether President Ford would pardon Nixon. In fact, I think he said at press briefings that no pardon was being considered. This story got a lot of play in Detroit because Ter Horst had been the political editor of the Detroit News before he was named press secretary. Is my memory faulty on this, or was this just the story for public consumption?

Ron Nessen: As I understand it, Jerry wasn't mislead about the pardon...he just wasn't told about it until the day before Ford signed it. Only Ford and a couple of other people in the White House knew that a pardon was under consideration.

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Alexandria, Va.: Thanks for taking questions today. I always thought Margaret Tutwiler did a very good job as State Department spokesperson. Smart, accurate, and the media seemed to have a good impression of her. Is this a correct assessment?

Ron Nessen: Yes. I'm was a huge fan of Margaret Tutwiler. She possessed a couple of the most important qualities of a good press secretary -- Jim Baker trusted her and made sure she knew what was going on at all times...and she had a wonderful sense of humor.

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Mass.: What hours did you work as press secretary and will someone who is recovering from colon cancer be able to handle the hours and strain?

Ron Nessen: I was picked up from home by a White House car at 6:30 AM and I usually got home in the evening between 10 and 11 PM. I think Tony is more than able physically to handle the job.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Thanks for taking these questions. I'm a former reporter, no longer in the business or even PR, I worked briefly writing for a company internal Web site.

Did you find it hard to switch sides, to be a spokesman and having to answer questions, instead of asking them?

What about questions you have answers to and can't answer?

Ron Nessen: My attitude when I took the press secretary's job was that I was still a reporter...I was a reporter on the INSIDE...I'd see what was going on in the White House every day and then come out at my briefing and report to the other reporters what I had seen and heard. In reality, that turned out to be a bit naive.

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Sunnyvale, Calif.: Some days ago, there was a comment made by Snow himself (I think), as to why would he take a pay cut to become a pinata. Why did he?

Ron Nessen: I'm not sure why he did. But I can tell you why I did -- after covering the White House during Lyndon Johnson's presidency and the first month of the Ford presidency, I had a strong urge to see what was going on BEHIND the scenes. I got my wish, and what I found was that what went on in the White House was WAY more complicated than it appeared to me as a reporter on the outside.

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Rockville, Md.: How much input does a press secretary generally have on national policy making? Isn't his or her job to present the President's agenda?

Ron Nessen: The short answer is NONE. As you say, his or her role is to announce and explain what the President has decided to do, and why.

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Munich, Germany: The book, "Taking Heat", by Ari Fleischer seems to accurately describe the dilemma of a Press Secretary being subjected to intense scrutiny of White House policy by an inquisitive press corps.

What is the best tactic or strategy for a Press Secretary when confronted with sensitive topics that he can not or does not want to discuss with the press corps?

Ron Nessen: Don't lie. Say something like: "I can't talk about that today," or "I don't have anything for you on that right now," or "Check with me later, I may have something for you then." Don't lie.

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Austin, Tex.: Do you think Bush would have been better served to hire on a more liberally biased press secretary in order to gain greater legitimacy in the face of the public? Should he have called CNN or MSNBC instead of FOX?

Ron Nessen: Maybe he should have contacted Ron Howard? Or Susan Sarandon? Just kidding.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Mr. Snow has written critical comments about President Bush. How would you advise him to handle any questions on having made those comments?

Ron Nessen: I've heard that but I haven't read the exact text of his critical comments. I would say criticizing Bush in the past will help his credibility...and appointing someone who has criticized him in the past will help Ford's credibility.

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Richmond, Va.: Leaving aside the politics, what about the concept of hiring an anchorman type with a high IQ rating as press secretary? Does this mean that future holders of the position- not associated with glamour in the past- will have to meet a new kind of standard?

Enjoyed your guest shot on SNL.

Ron Nessen: Tony Snow? Glamorous? You must be watching a DIFFERENT Tony Snow.

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Bethesda, Md.: Your comment about thinking you'd be a reporter on the inside makes me think that times have really changed. I cannot imagine a press secretary thinking anything like that now. Do you think times have really changed? Can they change back?

Ron Nessen: They can change back, and I hope Tony -- as the first reporter since me to hold the job -- will change back.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: How much access does a typical Press Secretary have in observing the Presidential decision making process? Isn't it obvious that a Press Secretary can't tell the press what a Press Secretary doesn't know, so how can we trust that the Press Secretary even knows the full and correct answers to the questions of the press?

Ron Nessen: How right you are. When Ford asked me to take the job, I told him I wanted to get my information first hand...attend the meetings...listen to the discussions...watch the decisions being made. And he said, "That's the kind of press secretary I want." I hope Tony will enjoy the same access to first-hand information. It's the prerequisite for success in that job.

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Washington, D.C.: Who might have been some better choices (not suggesting Snow is a bad one, just wondering about the other options)?

Ron Nessen: Superman. Wonder Woman. King Kong.

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washingtonpost.com: Thank you all for joining us today.

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