Writing the President's speeches is Snow's job

October 25, 1991|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Evening Sun Staff

TONY SNOW puts words in the President's mouth. He does this without daily conversation with President Bush. He does this smoothly, behind the scenes. This is no snow job.

Tony Snow is President George Bush's head speech writer.

He is 36 years old and he has "The Look." The unbuttoned top button on the crisp off-white shirt. The tie, slightly askew. Clear, sharp eyes with a strong jaw. The cover boy for "GQ."

And yet, Snow is not a front man. If he does his job well, he says, he will stay behind the scenes. Only the President's voice will be heard.

"I intend to have a passion for anonymity," he said when he took the job last March.

His is one of those jobs about which the general public seldom thinks. When the President addressed the process surrounding Judge Clarence Thomas' confirmation to the Supreme Court yesterday someone else wrote his words -- most of them, anyway.

That someone is Tony Snow -- and his staff of five writers, five researchers, three office assistants and as many as eight interns. The strangest thing about Snow's job is that he and his staff create all those words for the President with limited access to the President.

"I figure, if I do my job well, access will improve," he said. "If the speeches don't make him happy, I'll lose access."

The first time Snow and President Bush met, the President made one thing clear.

"I'm not the world's greatest orator," he told Snow.

"He's not given to grand elegant construction," Snow said. "Give him that and he'll botch it. He wants it very simple. Very direct. He has said he'll kill anyone who makes him quote Euripides. You try to write with directness. You try not to be lofty. You guess. You lurch along.

"I'm still trying to figure out the art of speech writing," he said.

According to Dom Bonafede, who covered the White House for 10 years for a number of publications including the National Journal and Newsweek and who continues to study presidential speeches, Snow has already had noticeable impact.

"In general terms the speeches have been much more specific and detailed and a little more rhetorical in nature since Tony's arrival," said Bonafede, now an associate professor at American University. "I think the speeches have improved substantially. No speech writer can improve the speaker, but there has been more substance, and he has removed the elliptical tendencies, like 'Read my lips.'"

Snow, who came to this job last March after three years as the editorial page editor at the Washington Times, is a native of Berea, Ky., who graduated from Davidson College in 1977 and began his newspaper career as an editorial writer on the Greensboro (N.C.) Record in 1979. He was an editorial writer at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and editorial page editor of the Newport News Daily Press and the Detroit News before going to the Washington Times.

With such a background, Snow is a self-assured and confident man who is not shy about giving a behind-the-scenes look at his place in the White House.

"When I was being interviewed for the job, I never met the President," Snow recalled. "I asked Mr. Sununu [chief of staff John Sununu] if I could talk to him before I made my decision, but he said, 'I know it sounds reasonable, but with all due respect' -- and I've come to learn when Sununu says 'with all due respect' he has both barrels aimed at your head and you ought to duck -- 'I don't think the President should have to audition, do you?'"

So it is Snow who does the auditioning. He tries to avoid the pitfalls of his predecessors. He studies tapes of speeches. He pays rapt attention to how words sound.

"When I came to the White House, a lot of people were writing speeches not for George Bush but for Dana Carvey," the comedian who impersonates Bush on "Saturday Night Live," Snow said. "There were nothing but sentence fragments, literally. Once I got a speech draft without one single complete sentence. So one of the first things I decreed is we will have complete sentences. You laugh, but I mean, they were so intent on making the President sound like what they thought the President sounded like, they were making him sound like a complete buffoon. No wonder he was unhappy."

He tries to understand the basic instincts of the President. "You try to figure out what points he really wants to make. For instance, he's not big on all-out partisan attacks on Democrats. He just won't do it. So you don't try to make him. Within that context, you try to understand his sensibilities to policy issues. You try to write speeches he can deliver and speeches people will listen to."

One thing he's noticed is that President Bush speaks in five- to seven-second bursts.

"So every five to seven seconds,you have to have a verb. Period," he said. "Otherwise, he's going to take a breath, often right in the middle of a word, because he needs to take a breath. So you have to think about cadences."

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