The Good Humor Man

New spokesman Tony Snow has brought a more playful style to White House public relations, but secrecy is still a concern

July 25, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON-- --Back when Tony Snow was free to speak his mind, he lambasted the news media and President Bush with almost gleeful abandon.

Journalists were elitists who "tend to look on the American public with finicky disdain," Snow wrote in a 2004 Web column. Network news thrived on "snob appeal." Reporters "almost never admit an error," and their use of unnamed sources was "slimy" - a way to "make sloppy reporting easier to commit and harder to detect," he wrote last year.

As for Bush, he was "something of an embarrassment," a leader afflicted by the "wimp factor," wrote the man who would soon become the face of Bush's White House. The president's domestic policy was "listless," Snow opined, and Bush and Congress could not "resist the temptation to stop raiding the public fisc," or treasury.

When Snow, the former Fox News host and conservative columnist, became Bush's spokesman earlier this year, he gave up the latitude to voice such cutting commentary. Now he spends his days working to strike a difficult balance: Trumpeting the president's message and making him look good, while convincing reporters he's looking out for them.

"I like reporters, and there's a big difference between going out and looking at the press as a potential roomful of hostile throng and as a bunch of colleagues who you've been dealing with - either directly or indirectly - for years," the White House press secretary said in an interview in his West Wing office, his BlackBerry vibrating on the desk as a wall of TV screens blared headlines of the day.

At the same time, he added, "I've got to remember that I'm serving the president. ... You have to remain faithful to that."

Snow said it's not "that hard" to keep his opinions to himself. But it hasn't always been a smooth transition for the 51-year-old, who had some stumbles early on and gets mixed reviews for his performance in a still-secretive White House.

He acknowledged his latest mistake just yesterday, telling reporters that he "overstepped" last week when he said Bush regards certain forms of embryonic stem cell research as "murder."

"I feel bad about it," said Snow, whose use of the charged term left Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff, at pains to explain the president's position on the complex hot-button issue during a Sunday morning TV interview.

In general, Snow has brought fresh perspective to a press operation that was stuck in a rut of recycled responses and predictable dodges, say current and former Bush aides. But the change has been more atmosphere than substance. While Snow has added a confident and often humorous touch to briefings and granted some reporters greater access to senior officials, the Bush White House remains tightly controlled and its top members mostly off-limits.

Snow's easy style is a marked departure from that of his predecessor, Scott McClellan, whose studied and stilted repetition of talking points often made him appear uneasy and defensive. By contrast, Snow - who spent seven years as a Fox News TV host and three on Fox radio show - routinely, and often playfully, takes issue with reporters' questions and dissects their theories.

"You're arguing with me, so I'm going to throw it back at you!" he quipped recently at an off-camera briefing, sparring with a journalist who questioned his immigration statistics.

Snow will openly confess when he's keeping reporters in the dark, or sidestepping a nettlesome topic.

Fielding familiar questions and charges from reporters, he "can take an old talking point and look at it from another perspective," said Dana Perino, his top deputy. "It's like taking a box that you've looked at every day of your life, and then you're looking at it with new eyes just by having turned it over."

He has also honed self-deprecation almost to a science, coining a cutesy phrase - "the bupkis list" - for matters on which he professes ignorance ("I'm not even gonna fake it," he often quips), cheerfully mangling the pronunciations of foreign towns, and once calling himself an "idiot" during a televised briefing.

Puncturing the overwrought atmosphere at White House briefings was one of his top goals upon coming to the White House, he said. These days there's more laughter, and Snow - who had surgery and chemotherapy for colon cancer last year - said he is "having more fun in this job than I've ever had in my life."

Snow "has the confidence and the surefootedness of a sage and the enthusiasm of a little kid," said Republican strategist Mary Matalin, who worked with Snow in George H.W. Bush's White House, where he was a speechwriter and media aide. "He can be spontaneous. It's not like he's walking on eggshells all the time."

His experience in the news business - he spent 21 years as a newspaper opinion writer and editor before heading to Fox - allows him to bring a light touch to his interactions with reporters, even when they're hounding him with tough questions.

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