As soon as President Bush announced that Tony Snow was his new press secretary, the pundits and politicians scrambled to put a label on him. The liberals fret that he's too conservative, and the conservatives haven't liked some of his friendly but pointed criticism of the president's policies. After the Democratic gains in 2004, Tony described the president as an "embarrassment."
Anyone with Tony's paper trail, distinguished though it is, is asking for trouble. Since he arrived in Washington he has been editorial page editor of The Washington Times, written a widely syndicated column, and been host of a Fox Network radio show and the interlocutor on a Fox weekend television program. Not everyone regards this resume as fair and balanced.
Liberal critics describe him as a lean Rush Limbaugh -- a fox, as it were, disguised as a rooster on his way to the henhouse. He often subbed for Rush on his syndicated radio show. Women, even radical feminists who find him "cute," fret that he's just another pretty face against Roe v. Wade. It's impossible in Washington not to look for labels first.
Most pundits seek polarities in ideology, not persuasive substance. If we know a person's political and intellectual persuasion, we think we don't have to read or listen because we know what he or she will say, probably even about the weather. But that can't be the role of the president's press secretary. The president made this clear when he introduced Tony to the White House press room.
"My job is to make decisions, and his job is to help explain those decisions to the press corps and the American people," he said. "Tony already knows most of you, and he's agreed to take the job, anyway." This last was a joke. Maybe.
Tony was chosen because he's a sophisticated messenger who has experience in the newsroom as well as at the White House, where he was a speechwriter for the first President Bush. His job now will be to focus on the way news is transmitted from the White House through reporters to the public. From the day the White House first televised press briefings, we've been treated to a television show rather than serious newsgathering. Reporters going live on camera are very different from reporters in a newsroom, becoming stars in a reality show. The picture can be worth a dozen bylines.
Press secretaries realize that what they say is not merely information going to a reporter, but is instantly transmitted to hundreds of thousands of television viewers, and requires extreme caution. There's always the risk of being voted off the island.
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