The appointment of Tony Snow as the new White House press spokesman is the shrewdest move, and also the best choice, the Bush administration has made in years.
The job of press spokesman has grown phenomenally in recent years. Back when the daily White House press briefings weren't televised, it didn't matter nearly so much who was sent out to make announcements and answer the press corps' tough questions. But during the Clinton administration portions of the daily briefings were televised and broadcast live, and, perhaps inevitably, they came to be covered in full by television cameras. Under George W. Bush, they have become an immensely important aspect of the face the administration has presented to the world. Scott McClellan, its most recent spokesman, has done a decent job, but nobody would call him inspired. With his replacement by Tony Snow, however, the situation is going to be dramatically transformed.
Snow, a veteran journalist and commentator on the Fox News Channel, is a tall, laid-back and courteous fellow whom it is almost impossible to dislike. His demeanor will present a formidable challenge to the members of the White House press corps, who are overwhelmingly liberal, despise the Bush administration, and have delighted in the chance live television coverage has given them to snarl nasty questions at Bush's beleagured spokesman. Some of them have obviously come to think of themselves as TV stars in their own right -- perhaps on the way to shows of their own.
It's going to be fun to watch these would-be stars trying to trap Snow in misstatements, or badger him for allegedly concealing the truth. Within a matter of months, they will realize that they simply cannot treat Snow as another case of roadkill. The Americans who watch these exchanges -- and there are millions of them -- will simply reject any attempt to cast this thoughtful, soft-spoken and eminently likeable man as some sort of professional liar, trying to launder the dirty linen of a venal administration.
Moreover, reports are that Snow has already bargained a more influential spot for himself than any previous spokesman has ever had. He will have "walk-in" access to the president, and a voice in how policies are formulated and presented. This will give him the ability to design, to some degree, the architecture of his encounters with the press.
Preliminary comments on Snow have run the gamut, from warm approval through calm appraisal to vicious attacks. The prize for the latter, surprisingly enough, goes to the usually better-balanced Economist, which mined Snow's comments over a decade of commentary for uncomplimentary remarks about Bush -- each a phrase wrenched from its context and massed in a single paragraph to look like a scathing denunciation.
So the bad news for Bush-haters is that the president will now have, on daily display, a warm-hearted and agreeable spokesman who can be counted on to present the administration's case in a clear and sensible way. If the White House press corps tries to savage him, as it so often, and so successfully, savaged McClellan, it will simply confirm what conservatives have been saying about it for years. And this time the witnesses will be the American people, for you can bet that Snow's old colleagues at Fox News, and the other media now available that are not parts of the liberal megaphone, will see to it that such episodes are duly broadcast.
That said, it is wise to remember that Snow has a tough job ahead. The Bush administration is entitled to have its side of public issues presented fairly, but there are plenty of issues on which it is justly vulnerable to criticism. The apparently endless insurgency in Iraq, administrative failures in anticipating and responding to Katrina, the Abramoff scandal and miscellaneous indictments of individuals on the staffs of Republican Congressmen and in the Executive branch, and even (less fairly) the soaring price of gasoline, all have taken a deadly toll of the president's approval ratings, and will need honest and sensitive handling by Mr. Bush's new spokesman.
But my guess is that sheer demagoguery, of the "Bush lied, people died" sort, is going to look even cheaper when confronted with the transparently honorable persona of Tony Snow.