Snow gets a bum rap

May 02, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- A lot of naysayers are picking apart President Bush's choice of conservative TV host and commentator Tony Snow to be his press secretary. Depending on whom you read or hear, Mr. Snow is either too conservative, too anti-Bush, too loyal, too independent, outspoken or maybe just too darn good-looking for the job.

But I think Mr. Bush's selection is smart public relations.

In this era of relentless news cycles, the press secretary is an administration's most visible day-to-day connection with the public. As Mr. Bush enters his last 1,000 days in office with his approval ratings barely above 30 percent, the quick-witted Mr. Snow replaces the tight-lipped, constantly uncomfortable-looking Scott McClellan with a face so camera-worthy as to require the invention of TV, were it not around already.

And Mr. Snow has a brain. Even while hosting for the rightward-tilted Fox News Channel and for radio, his pointed jabs at the Bush administration's ineffectiveness show Mr. Snow is more than a megaphone for the White House. That Mr. Bush stands by Mr. Snow despite such criticisms, pointing out that Mr. Snow fired bigger shots at "the other guys," makes Mr. Bush sound like a broad-minded man, even if it doesn't say much about whether he actually listens to such criticism.

Yet even before Mr. Bush confirmed reports of Mr. Snow's appointment, liberal critics flooded the Internet with evidence that Mr. Snow is, of all things, a conservative!

But Mr. Snow is no refugee from the goofy wing of conservatism. In the 15 years I have known him professionally, he has impressed me repeatedly as a man of conscience who genuinely cares about solving the tough problems of poverty, bad schools and sour race relations. When he's not trying to adopt the Rush Limbaugh/Bill O'Reilly demagogue pose, he's a guy who sheds more light than heat. His critics do themselves a disservice when they blur that distinction.

I was particularly disappointed to find one of the controversial quotes that have come back to haunt Mr. Snow, since it was unfairly ripped out of context from one of my columns.

A Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee press release, for example, recounted the quote like this:

"In 1991, then-White House speechwriter Tony Snow defended former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, saying, `Duke is talking about things people really care about: high taxes, crummy schools, crime-ridden streets, welfare dependency, equal opportunity. A lot of politicians aren't talking about these things.'"

Mr. Snow's quote appeared in my Nov. 20, 1991, column, and it was not in defense of Mr. Duke. Rather, Mr. Snow was trying to explain why the former Klansman had just won an estimated 55 percent of the white vote in the Louisiana governor's race. Mr. Snow wanted me to know that, just as those of us who attended Minister Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March were not acting out of black supremacy or anti-Semitism, neither were all Duke voters moved by racism.

"You can't write off Duke's voters as racists," he said. "Duke is talking about things people really care about: high taxes, crummy schools, crime-ridden streets, welfare dependency, equal opportunity. A lot of politicians aren't talking about these things."

If mainstream politicians don't listen to the frustrations of ordinary people and address them in some constructive way, Mr. Snow was saying, the loony extremists inevitably will move in.

Meanwhile, the fact that Democrats have lost all but three presidential races since 1968 can be traced, in part, back to their losing those ordinary white folks who for decades had been the party's natural constituency.

Mr. Snow understands why Democrats lost touch and how Republicans capitalized on it. Now in Mr. Bush's final days as president, Mr. Bush seems to have lost touch. He's saddled with a quagmire in Iraq, soaring fuel prices at home and subterranean approval ratings. He has a lot to learn from Mr. Snow. So do the Democrats.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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