Media

Tony Snow: A Tribute

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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.

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  1. It was as if being a part of the presidency hadn’t made Tony more self-important, it had made him more humble?

    He did not take the Press Secretary position or persist in support of the lies out of humility. Quite the opposite.

    How much more horrible are the misdeeds of the person whom we can admire than those of the person with no good qualities?

  2. I liked Tony Snow and feel sympathy toward his family. RIP.

  3. My condolences to the family, way too young. With that said:

    “People draw a caricature of this president as lacking curiosity,” Snow countered. “But he’s one of the most aggressively curious people I’ve met. He understands that to get the best out of everybody, you must ensure they have every opportunity to take risks and give their best advice. He ensures that the people he’s got operate at a very high level of motivation and creativity.”

    Tony was speaking true, but was also fully aware that the context for those words is that Bush consistently dumped dissenters and surrounds himself with sycophants.

    In other words, a pure Snow job.

  4. During the tail end of our conversation, [Snow] 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.

    Umm … as a libertarian, am I supposed to admire the man for having such loyalty to a freedom-destroying Constitution-shredding presidential administration? Am I supposed to think that wrecking America is fine so long as it’s my buddy doing it?

  5. It’s tacky piling on a dead guy, but every time I saw Tony Snow on TV he gave off a “I’m so goddamn good-looking I don’t have to tell you a goddamn thing” aura. His interview in reason did not impress me.

  6. Hypothetical scenario: there are two men, both of whom are equally loathsome criminals. Killers, serial rapists, whatever. Both men have girlfriends. Which girlfriend does Shikha Dalmia admire the most: the one who betrays her lover’s confidence and helps the police get this menace to society off the streets, or the gun moll who stands by her man and refuses to say anything about his crimes?

  7. Beautifully written obituary in honor of a truly good man. Why can’t we have more honest praise of good politicians like this? I am really feeling down about this horrrible bitter partisianship we have seen recently. Can’t we all be a little more reasonable like Shikha Dalmia and agree that the third way is the best way?

  8. Envy is an ugly thing, Alan.

    He seemed humble and engaging to me.

  9. The passing of any individual is of course a tragedy for his family and loved ones, but not every passing is worthy of a national media extravaganza. I hope that the former Minister of Truth is laid to rest in a quiet and dignified manner by his close friends and family, without the intrusion and fawning of the national media.

  10. From a libertarian point of view, I can’t say that he did anything good in office, and I probably only agree with about 1/4 or less of his general policy views as a journalist. However, I’m sure he will be missed by friends and family.

    And from a professional standpoint, we can all agree that he was less ridiculous than Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf. So there’s something.

  11. A tragic death, for certain, but a common occurrance in this world of ours. Modern journalism seems more obsessed in reporting about itself than the actual world around us. The advent of blogging has certainly worsened this hall-of-mirrors effect.

  12. I will say nothing bad about the man, but I’m a little put off by the memorials I’ve seen in various news outlets.

    “He was a good man. He looked me in the eye and lied to me, but he also told jokes! And he knew sports trivia. He will be missed.”

  13. I loved this man. All who serve the commander in chief are worthy of praise, if only because they have been touched by his saintly flesh. Those of you dirty souls who have not met greatness will never understand the amazing humanity of those who rule over lesser beings.

  14. Good wishes to his family and friends. I always stopped to listen to him because he was more thoughtful and more sincere than most in the national debate. In his death, he has become an unwitting Rorschach test for decency and sincerity. It would be nice to be able to say that fellow travelers pass that test, but I’m not surprised they don’t.

  15. I didn’t know the man personally, but he seemed like a good guy. What I can’t stand is all the snarky comments that have been bandied in this discussion just because he worked for a president and news network some people don’t particularly care for. Say what you will about Bush, but let Tony Snow rest in peace. He’s not here to ruffle your feathers anymore, so chill out.

  16. What I can’t stand is all the snarky comments that have been bandied in this discussion just because he worked for a president and news network some people don’t particularly care for.

    For me, at least, it’s not merely a matter of “he worked for someone I don’t particularly care for”; it’s “he worked for someone who actively made our country worse, and used his spin-powers to justify it as it happened.”

    Even if I were religious, I doubt I’d believe that dying of colon cancer grants absolution for a career spent telling lies and justifying evil acts.

  17. For those playing at home:

    Evil Acts = Policies a person doesn’t agree with

  18. FTLOP-

    Exactly. Torture isn’t actually evil in any objective sense, it’s just something that a lot of people disagree with, and calling it “evil” is just hyperbole. So you’re right, torture isn’t actually “evil”, merely a controversial policy.

    Teach the controversy!

  19. For those playing at home:

    Torture = evil, therefore some feel this is a good opportunity to define torture in a manner in which it makes it easier for them to berate a dead man.

  20. One tangent. Shikha refers to Rush Limbaugh as “perennially enraged.” Despite being on a totally different page than Rush about 1/2 of the time, I have never, ever, heard him “enraged.” I think referring to right-wing radio as angry/enraged/fuming or whatnot has sort of become a lazy, template-justifying shortcut. The only talk radio guy I ever hear who’s perennially enraged is Michael Savage, who could probably also be referred to as perennially close to snapping.

    Shrug.

    Great article. I can’t say I ever was a huge fan of Mr. Snow’s as I just didn’t have strong feelings about him, but he seemed a good natured chap. I’ll miss his relatively balanced hand.

  21. It is absolutely disgraceful that REASON would post this on its web site. Tony Snow is rotting in hell with Bill Buckley.

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