Dwight Eisenhower was the first president even to allow routine direct quotation; before that, reporters could only characterize what a president said. This was to retain "plausible deniability." Now everyone aims for the sound bite. "Gone are the days when this daily session was a serious affair, with mostly serious questions asked and mostly serious answers given," writes Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary for George W. Bush, in The Washington Post. "Instead the public is now treated to a spectacle in which the media do their best to pressure the White House, regardless of which party is in power, into admitting that much of what the president is doing is wrong, and the White House pushes back."
The press is more interested in conflict, while the White House is more interested in getting attention to policy, illuminated in the way the president wants it illuminated. A president may be tempted to eliminate televised briefings, but this would inevitably cast him in retreat from the press. The appointment of Tony Snow is to suggest greater openness.
When the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down a president, the typical White House reporter began to see the prospect of star status. With television on a 24-hour news cycle, the tedious task of newsgathering suddenly revealed dramatic possibilities. Grunge work got a makeover with makeup. Like it or not, Tony's assignment is to exploit his friendship with many of the reporters and use his strong credentials as one of them to dilute the vitriol and bile that drowns the televised briefings.
The search through Tony Snow's pundit debris has focused on his politics. But more important than any of that, perhaps, is the column he wrote after he was told he had potentially lethal colon cancer: "Nothing makes one feel more alive than the prospect of death, and the requirement that one fight for the things that give life its richness, meaning and joy." If he can sustain that outlook in the press room, he could give new meaning to "the good fight." We won't get snow jobs on this watch.