Before he was a radio host, or a network news anchor, or the White House Press secretary, Tony Snow was a writer. He started his career as an editorial writer and editor for newspapers such as The Virginian-Pilot, The Washington Times and The Detroit News, eventually becoming a nationally syndicated op-ed columnist, with more than 200 newspapers publishing his commentary every week.
From 1994 to 1998, I was the editor of Tony's column, which he loved to write. "This is the best part of my week," he'd declare with trademark Tony enthusiasm as he turned in his latest piece.
It was the best part of my week, too. He was a skilled journalist, one who unfailingly delivered intelligent, earnest analysis on matters of complicated national issues. And though he was a beautiful writer as well, he never thought of himself as one. "My writing is fine, but it isn't great," he'd cheerfully (and wrongly) insist. "That's OK. I don't do it because I'm a great writer. I do it because I love it."
Tony especially loved to write about his family, though he was hesitant to do so. Whenever he'd written a column about himself or one of his children, he'd turn it in almost apologetically, as if he couldn't imagine why anyone would want to read about his personal life. But those pieces were so genuine and intimate, so revealing of how he applied his intellect and ethics not just politically but also personally, that they became some of his most widely read pieces.
I think readers enjoyed knowing that at his core he was a family man -- one who was grounded in the relationships he had with his wife and with his three children. "Have kids, Laura," he'd tell me over and over again. "You have to have kids. No matter what you do, you'll never learn as much about yourself as you will by raising children." (I did have kids, and Tony was right, of course.)
Tony was an affable believer in political debate. Even when his professional path took him to environments that were fraught with contention -- he was an anchor at Fox News, a network frequently accused by liberals of slanting its coverage in favor of a conservative agenda, and he served in an embattled Bush White House, during wartime, no less -- he'd stay calmly focused, confidently committed. He never grew jaded or cold.
After I stopped editing newspaper columns to move to New York and take a job in magazine editing, and Tony stopped writing his syndicated column to concentrate more fully on his role at Fox News, we kept in touch. A phone call here, an email there, usually prompted by small updates in our lives -- new jobs, new children. Every time we spoke, he'd mention how much he loved writing, and how much he missed it.
One day, he confessed that he hoped he'd be able to take a break from his other professional obligations soon so he could write a book.
What will you write about? I asked. He certainly had plenty of options. He could author a memoir, telling the remarkable story of a White House speechwriter cum national news anchor cum White House press secretary. Or he could narrate a revealing account of his turns in the White House during not just one but two Bush presidencies.
But while he knew as well as I did that those were the books publishing houses would pay big money to publish, he had something else in mind.
"I'm going to write a book about beating cancer," he said. "People need to know that they can beat it -- they can beat cancer with love, and with family support, and with a positive attitude. I did it, and I'm going to write a book about it." That was before he got sick again.
I'd give anything for Tony to be writing that book right now.
I will miss Tony Snow. I'll miss his judicious journalism, his nimble political debate, and his openly patriotic sensibility. I'll miss the way he was able to face conflict, even tragedy, with gravitas and levity at the same time. Most of all, I'll miss his kindness and friendship.
Sweetly avuncular, empirically likeable, astonishingly intelligent -- the loss of Tony Snow will be felt by us all for a long time to come.