Snow: President Bush is ‘Aggressively Curious’

Former press secretary says Bush invites debate, stands on principle

I first met Tony Snow in the fall of 1995. He had, at 40, already acquired an impressive reputation and resume: A syndicated columnist, he had served as chief speech writer for the senior President George Bush. He subbed on the “Rush Limbaugh Show” and was the Washington, D.C., correspondent of this newspaper’s editorial page — where I was a new hire.

We met in his grubby office in Rosslyn, Va., and, after a quick greeting, had lunch at a nearby restaurant. I was getting my first good look at him — observing his deep-set blue eyes, crooked smile and lanky frame — when a middle-aged woman walked up to our table and thrust a newspaper with his column before him. She wanted his autograph — allegedly for her married daughter. He graciously complied and then — noticing my amused smile — grinned back sheepishly.

“Well, it was a great column,” I said, trying to dispel the awkwardness. He said, with humble sincerity, something like: “Gee, you really liked it?”

My most recent meeting with Snow, a few days before he left his post as White House press secretary in September, took place in the august environs of his West Wing office. His hair was thinner — thanks to the aggressive chemo therapy he endured after his second bout of colon cancer — and his shoulders sagged a bit. But his warm, unassuming demeanor remained unchanged.

Inside the White House

Snow’s defining trait — and the secret of his success as press secretary — is not his wholesome Midwestern good looks, his intellect or his quick wit, but his abiding modesty. It has made him serious — while insulating him from self-seriousness. So as press secretary, he could go to bat on behalf of the administration without appearing disingenuous or losing credibility with his “customers”: the crusty and confrontational White House press corps.

His daily, on-air briefings with them were so full of repartee and humor — alternatively combative and self-deprecating — that they came to be called “The Tony Snow Show.”

My objective was to prod him to reflect about this president and his own effectiveness as his press secretary. I started by asking him about his time at the White House. “It’s really been the most fun and satisfying job I’ve ever had,” he said.

It couldn’t have been all fun, I suggested. After all, during Snow’s 16-month-tenure: Iraq deteriorated; the president’s immigration reforms were torpedoed; Republicans lost control of Congress; and Democrats hounded Attorney General Alberto Gonzales out of office.

What made it worthwhile, he averred, was the “ethos of collegiality” the president created. He assembled a senior staff that was a “group of equals,” discouraging any single power center from emerging. There was a lot less backstabbing in this Bush White House than the previous one.

“In the old Bush White House, a lot of people were in it for themselves,” he said. ” This White House has really been off the charts in collegiality.”

Bush’s inquisitiveness

But GQ reporter Robert Draper’s portrait of the Bush presidency, “Dead Certain,” insists that this president shuns dissenting opinions — even his own father’s. Learning to bite his lip must have been uncomfortable?

“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.”

One reason his predecessor, Scott McLellan, looked like a deer in headlights during press briefings was that he had been frozen out of high-level policy discussions. Snow made a seat at these discussions and walk-in privileges to the president a condition before joining. Was he satisfied with the voice he was given?

“I didn’t realize that I was pushing against an open door. I participated in the daily senior staff meetings. Also, before we got to make a big decision, there was policy time — when senior advisers would sit around with the president going through everything. Sometimes I would listen and take notes. When they are discussing some abstruse financial questions, I am going to listen — not weigh in. … (O)ften it was easier to see the president than my colleagues.”

Such a sunny portrayal is at odds with Snow’s previous comments about the president. I listed some: “A domestic-policy cipher.” “A classical dime-store Democrat.” Why had he revised his assessment of Bush? What is most impressive about the president up-close, Snow insisted, is his steadfastness.

“A lot of people, for the sake of polls, wanted him to change the way he conducted the war (which Snow supported). But if he dramatically backs away from Iraq and the long-term result is that this country is less secure, 25 years from now nobody is going to care about his approval ratings. They are going to say: ‘Why didn’t you do your job?’ He is truly principled about himself.”

If Snow — or “Snowbird” as President Bush nicknamed him — is impressed with the president’s conduct of foreign policy, he is “downright proud” of him on immigration, on which Bush has advocated creating a path to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants and a guest worker program in addition to enforcing the border.

“He took on a lot of Republicans. He did not advocate half measures. He might not have accomplished what he wanted to, but I am fully confident that eventually we will end up with his policies.”

Role of press secretary

Snow has arguably been the best press secretary ever. Karl Rove, former senior adviser to the president, compared his deft handling of the press to “Mick Jagger at a rock concert.” Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois enlisted him as a speaker for Republican fund-raising events, an unprecedented role for a press secretary and a testament to his star power.

Even liberals have praised Snow. The New York Times commented that he “reinvented the job with his snappy sound bites and knack for deflecting tough questions with a smile.” Clinton White House Special Counsel Lanny Davis gushed: “(H)e is a man of integrity and he’s a man of fairness and he’s a man of substance.” Even Jon Stewart recently said: “I really respect you.”

This would be remarkable under any circumstances, but especially for a movement conservative hired by a conservative administration to revive a conservative agenda. The irony, I point out, is that while Snow’s approval rating — so to speak — soared, the president’s hovered around 30 percent, rivaling Jimmy Carter’s during his lowest point.

“That’s part of being a wartime president. If you flipped positions, he’d have high approval ratings and I would be the one taking the brunt of public discontent about the war.”

Is he contending then that a press secretary — even one as highly regarded as himself — can’t affect the public perception of an unpopular president or policies? What contribution did he make to this White House?

“My job was to answer questions pretty much, to make sure that the administration’s views get out. The press briefings had become painful to watch. We gave people hard data about what’s going on.”

Then, I persisted, would Snow maintain that without his efforts, the president’s public perception might have been still worse?

“No. No. That would be an over-estimation of the art of the press secretary. There are things that the press secretary can do to ensure that the president’s views are portrayed accurately. But, ultimately, he lives in the reflected glory of the president.”