No snow job for Tony

Suzanne Fields

5/1/2006 12:05:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

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.

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.