I heard stories about Tony Snow's legendary charm long before I met him. But charm takes many forms and I wasn't prepared for his particular brand when we first had lunch in Rosslyn, Virginia, in 1995, several months after I joined the editorial page of the Detroit News, where he was then working as the D.C. correspondent.
Tony had not yet become a TV personality. And since I rarely tuned into the Rush Limbaugh show, where Tony subbed when the perennially enraged host was on vacation, my only direct familiarity was through his columns, where Tony was sarcastic, witty, and pulled no punches. He was like the Joe Frazier of column-writing: He hit first and he hit hard.
When we met, however, what struck me was how different he was from the persona portrayed in his columns. He was smart and funny, of course and—true to the picture that accompanied his column—very good looking. But there was no machismo, no attitude, not even an edge.
His most dominant characteristic was sweetness. Contrary to the impression I had formed from reading his columns, Tony's humor didn't function to smooth over some deep partisan edge. Instead, it served to leaven his innately gentle spirit.
Tony was openly conservative. But unlike Limbaugh, he did not regard those on the other side as his enemies. He assumed no malice or venality on their part. He could talk to them, reach out to them and—most importantly—learn from them. His attitude was of a sportsman, not a warrior. He wanted his side to win, and he played hard to do so, as his tenure as President Bush's press secretary amply demonstrated. But he always played fair, maintaining good will towards his opponents, never demonizing or denigrating them.
I saw him for the last time back in September, when I interviewed him for reason just a few days before he left his job as press secretary. And what was remarkable was how little he had changed over the years, especially after being part of an embattled administration. He had seen the administration through some bitter political battles, including the Iraq surge, the firing of federal attorneys by Alberto Gonzales, and immigration reform. He felt intensely about some of these causes, yet, at that time, they were losing in the court of public opinion. On the personal front, he was battling a recurrence of his cancer—and, as it turns out, losing that fight too. But there was no hint of disappointment or bitterness or even sadness in him. His positive spirit seemed completely undiminished.
I tried hard to draw him out through my questions, hoping that, given our old connection, he would level with me; perhaps allowing me to see his frustration with the White House, perhaps hinting at things that it could have done differently to make his job easier. He criticized the president plenty before he became his press secretary. Now that he had a front-row seat to the presidency—and given that he was no star-struck cipher—surely he would have some suggestions for improvement. But Tony wouldn't take the bait, even expressing minor irritation at my line of questioning.
As I walked past the Old Executive building, I wondered if it had been a mistake to conduct the interview while Tony was still in office. Perhaps he would have talked more openly if he had had time to put some distance between himself and the White House. So I watched his subsequent appearances on Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Jon Stewart to see if he revealed more about how he really felt about the Bush presidency. But his posture and position remained more or less unchanged.
It was as if being a part of the presidency hadn't made Tony more self-important, it had made him more humble. Having observed the administration from close quarters, he had come to appreciate the enormous weight that any president—even one far from stellar—has to bear. The act of dispensing advice under such circumstances would have been presumptuous, something that his unassuming nature would not allow.
During the tail end of our conversation, he mentioned that his future plans involved spending more time with his family—to whom he was utterly and completely devoted—and writing a book about his experiences in the White House. I don't know how much progress he made on the book, but I would confidently predict one thing: It will contain no tell-all expose, offer no scathing critique of the Bush administration like his predecessor, Scott McClellan, recently did in his memoir.
Many commentators have called Tony a great man, given his combination of talents and charm. But that isn't quite right. The way he conducted himself throughout his career and his life, especially the last year, suggests that he was something far rarer: He was a good man.
Rest in Peace, Tony.
Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation.