According to Karl Rove, ex-White House press secretary Tony Snow is to his former post what Mick Jagger is to rock stars (Rove meant it as a compliment). During his year-and-a-half-long tenure with the Bush administration, The New York Times congratulated Snow for "reinventing the job with his snappy sound bites and knack for deflecting tough questions with a smile." Snow even won plaudits from Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who told the one-time Fox News Channel host, "I really respect you as a person and I like what you bring."
How did Tony Snow—a 52-year-old movement conservative brought on board by a conservative administration to revive a conservative agenda—win over the liberal media? One answer is his deep-seated modesty, which made him serious even as it protected him from self-seriousness. He was able to put aside his own agenda and go to bat on behalf of an embattled president without appearing disingenuous, even though he had made mocking the president a daily sport in his previous job as a Fox News radio commentator and newspaper columnist.
In fact, Snow's daily briefings with the White House press corps—a crusty and confrontational bunch whom he called his "customers"—were so full of his patented brand of repartee that they were dubbed "The Tony Snow Show." During one such briefing last year, Helen Thomas, the curmudgeonly 86-year-old correspondent for the Kings Feature Syndicate, launched into a soliloquy chastising the administration for failing to stop Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Snow patiently waited until she finished, then smilingly thanked her for offering "the Hezbollah view" of the issue and moved on to the next question.
Snow has been battling colon cancer for several years and cited the need to make more money as the main reason he stepped down as press secretary. Just before he left the White House in September, Snow sat down in his West Wing office with Reason Foundation senior analyst Shikha Dalmia, his former colleague on the editorial board of the Detroit News from 1996 to 2000, for an interview about his experiences as press secretary. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
reason: How did you enjoy this job?
Tony Snow: I loved it. It's really been the most fun job I've ever had. This White House really operates more smoothly than any I've ever seen. A lot less back-stabbing, a lot more collegiality.
reason: That's contrary to what Robert Draper reports in his biography of the Bush presidency, Dead Certain. He said there was a lot of tension between President Bush's senior advisor Karl Rove and senior counselor Dan Bartlett.
Snow: Dan and Karl worked in close quarters for many years. They had a meeting every day with the president. The idea somehow that there was open warfare between the two of them is overdrawn. They cooperated very well. Are people going to have tensions? Of course. We have conversations and discussions where people disagree pretty vehemently when they're talking in front of the president. But the president ends up making the call and then everybody goes along with it. So perhaps he misconstrued the way the White House operates as dysfunctionality.
reason: Is it true that the president really only likes to hear from people who agree with him?
Snow: This is wrong. That's just wrong.
reason: Especially when it came to the Iraq War, Draper says George W. Bush didn't even consult his father, the former president, because he knew his father wasn't going to agree.
Snow: There were a number of occasions when we brought in scholars and outsiders to discuss Iraq policy and the president participated fully. I guarantee you on that: Draper is just flat-out wrong. People like to draw a caricature of the president as lacking curiosity. The fact is he's one of the most aggressively curious people I've ever known.
reason: There's a strong sense, borne out by action or the lack thereof, that the president is impervious to his critics. So for a long time, people had been telling him that the Iraq war wasn't going well, but he was not listening.
Snow: The critics quite often have criticisms but they don't have recommendations. The new narrative is that somehow the Iraq war has been a failure for a long time and that everybody knows that it's been a failure for a long time. The period when Iraq went sour was from the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara in February 2006 until really the surge in 2007. Fifteen months, maybe? During that time, by June 2006, the president had already taken a good, fresh look. The National Security Council that involves both the State Department and intelligence agencies had done a review and the plan for the surge was laid out in the State of the Union address in January and rolled out from February through June. And it's producing results. I think what you've seen is the president actually responding pretty nimbly.
reason: So what has fed the idea that Bush is stubborn and unwilling to admit his mistakes?