Media

The Tony Snow Show

The former White House press secretary talks about President Bush, declining party loyalty, liberal media bias, and more.

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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 react@reason.com.

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?  

Snow: I'm not sure. What often happens is that people ask these open-ended questions, "What mistakes have you made?" But that's gratuitous. The president makes mistakes.  Everybody here constantly evaluates this. But when somebody asks a question like that, it's not because they want a balanced response, they want to write a gotcha piece. The president's job is not to sit around and put himself on a couch. 

reason: Run through how the messaging works in this White House. If a particular story or disaster breaks, how does the White House decide what it is going to say about it?

Snow: This is not like some previous administrations where people are running around with talking points. You're not going to find—I guarantee you—people using exactly the same phrase because that's not a very convincing way to do public diplomacy.  What you've got to do is allow people to speak honestly in their own words. You've just got to do it in a way that is not jarring or inconsistent with what the president is saying. The last thing you want is somebody saying, "Tony Snow said this." I once said that embryonic stem cell research is murder. That was giving my views, not the president's. And so I had to step back and say, "You know what, I gave my opinion."

reason: One of the curious things about your tenure was that you got consistently high marks on your performance from people all over the ideological map. Your approval rating, so to speak, is high. But the president's rating has remained where it was when you took office. Or worse. At various points, it's approached Nixonian levels.

Snow: People have a natural anxiety about the war and that gets visited on the president. But he does not descend into self-pity. He understands the importance of developing public support but he also understands that if, for the sake of getting a slightly better numbers in some public opinion poll, he backed away from Iraq in some dramatic way and the long-term result is that this country is less secure, nobody 25 years from now is going to care about what the public approval ratings.  They're going to say, "Why didn't you do your job?"

reason: Are you saying that if a president's policies are unpopular, there's not much that a press secretary can really do to change public perception? How do you see your own contributions to the White House?

Snow: My job is to answer questions pretty much.  And to try to make sure that we get the administration's view out. Consider the surge in Iraq: There has been recently some pretty significant change in the public perception about Iraq. That's because the press office has tried to communicate the good news there. But ultimately we live in the reflected glory of the president. 

reason: Has press bias contributed to the negative public perception about the president and the war?

Snow: It's clearly a factor. If you went out and gave every reporter a truth serum and asked them if they were Democrat or a Republican, you'd find out that most of them are Democrats. Reporters don't deliberately try to carry the water for political parties but sometimes they don't see your side of the argument. So it's incumbent upon a press secretary to make sure that they do see your side and quite often that is a long-term project.  Again, take the case of Anbar. Now it is accepted wisdom that things have changed in Anbar for the better. Four months ago it wasn't. When things started changing, you'd hear the press say that there are no guarantees. It took time, but you have to be persistent.

reason: How do you think the president's relationship with his base has changed over the last year?

Snow: I think he goes up and down.  What's interesting is that a lot of people got very skittish about the war and then all of a sudden, what you've seen in the last month is this sense of reassurance because the surge has been working, and there is a sigh of relief. There was a lot of tension over immigration, but if you take a look at the numbers in terms of base Republican support, they're pretty high. If you disaggregate the data, his numbers with the base are about the same as Ronald Reagan's.

reason: The support for the president among Republicans is running at 65 percent [as of the interview]. But according to polls, fewer people identify themselves as Republicans now than before President Bush began his second term. So has the president driven people out of the Republican Party?

Snow:  No.  Democratic numbers have fallen, too. If you take a look at people's natural party affiliation, that's fallen off dramatically. We've had a really volatile political period where party loyalty has fallen off on both sides on the left and the right. In some ways, this is an artifact of [the McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws] because what that did was it reduced the power of the national political parties. You don't have that ability to kind of create this sort of operational coherence that you used to have.

reason: You had been extremely critical of the president before you became press secretary. You made a lot of negative statements about the president, called him a "cipher" on domestic policy, a "classic dime-store Democrat." His policies haven't changed, but your estimation of him has changed quite a bit. Why?

Snow: Well, a couple of things. One is when you get to see somebody in action you get a different view, totally different.  Also, we haven't had a lot of the issues on which I was critical that have arisen since I've been here. For instance, on an issue like immigration that I was really passionate about, he took on a lot of Republicans and I'm very proud of what he was doing. When it comes to the war, he's been incredibly steadfast in the face of a lot of people who would like him, really for the sake of polling reasons, to change the way he conducts the war. During my time, it's come down to a handful of key issues such as energy, education, immigration and retirement reform. On all of these, the president didn't do half measures. He's pushing for the right things—regardless of whether he accomplished them or not. I'm fully confident that over time immigration and retirement and all those things, those are the right policies and we'll end up with them.

reason: How has the advent of new media such as bloggers complicated your job as press secretary?

Snow: Not much. I've been a little bit surprised because I've always been an advocate of blogs but, at this juncture, they don't affect things too much. The interesting thing about blogs is that they tend to be serial. They get into an issue and really dig into it, hit it hard. Then they play a very important role, but, on a day-to-day basis, story-to-story, they don't have much of an impact.

reason: Do you wish you could have stayed longer?

Snow: Yeah, sure.  I'd love to be able to stay to the end. But my wife and I had known for a good six or seven months that this wasn't possible. I'm sure I'm going to go through intense withdrawal.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation.

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