It's Not What Snow Doesn't Say, It's How He Doesn't Say It
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, May 17, 2006; A02
It began as the Tony Snow show. It turned out more like "Oprah."
The new White House press secretary gave his first televised briefing yesterday, and the former Fox News commentator was dispatching questioners with a sprightly blend of barbs, colloquialisms and one-liners. Then a local TV reporter in the back asked why Snow was wearing a yellow wristband.
"It's going to sound stupid, and I'll be personal here," Snow, a survivor of colon cancer, said of his Lance Armstrong bracelet. Then he choked up. Unable to speak, he raised his hand, gripped the lectern and drummed his fingers while 10 seconds of silence passed. "Having gone through this last year," he continued, and then he lapsed into another silence. Finally, he added: "It was the best thing that ever happened to me."
Nine more seconds of awkward silence followed as Snow struggled to regain his composure. "It's my Ed Muskie moment," he quipped, and the briefing room filled with laughter.
It was the pinnacle of a boffo debut by Snow. Reporters leaving the 40-minute session would discover that, like his predecessors, Snow had imparted no useful information to them. But he had done it in a far more entertaining manner. Of the National Security Agency's telephone espionage program, he risked some loaded language: "I don't want to hug the tar baby." Of future immigration patterns, he said: "Human beings are cussedly unpredictable."
Rather than repeating rote refusals to answer questions, Snow had a quick comeback for every occasion. When AP Radio's Mark Smith wondered whether the economy still needed the stimulus of more tax cuts, Snow retorted: "Are you suggesting that we have too much prosperity?" After Helen Thomas gave him a harangue about the administration's wiretapping secrecy, he shot back: "Al-Qaeda doesn't believe in transparency. What al-Qaeda believes in is mayhem."
Such a freewheeling style inevitably produces some misfires, and the green press secretary blundered almost immediately when he said he would "guarantee" that the Senate would pass immigration legislation.
Carl Cameron, representing Snow's former employer, quizzed him about this certainty, and Snow immediately caved. "Okay, you know what? I was being presumptuous there," he confessed. "I overstepped."
As he did in his first off-camera briefing last week, Snow sought to use his newcomer status to his advantage. Asked whether President Bush had spoken with border-state governors, Snow answered: "Honestly, I'm not sure." When pressed on the number of National Guard troops to be shifted to the Mexican border, he proposed: "Rather than have me fake it, I will get a precise number to you." As he waded carefully into an answer about the Iranian nuclear question, Snow said the administration "supports the continuing efforts of the EU-3." He then asked his questioner: "Am I getting it wrong?"
Snow's snappy answers disposed of the first three rows of questioners in a near-record 20 minutes. When he didn't like a question, he frequently would brand it "interesting." NBC's David Gregory pointed out that House conservatives didn't like Bush's immigration proposal; Snow found it "interesting." Thomas peppered him with questions about the NSA; Snow smiled and called the matter "interesting."
He scored points with the press corps when he shut down Les Kinsolving, a radio host who disrupts briefings with oddball questions. When Kinsolving, in thunder tones, demanded Bush's personal view of contraception, Snow merely said "Thank you" and moved on.
"Thank you?" Kinsolving bellowed.
"I don't have an answer for you, Lester," Snow reaffirmed.
Far riskier were Snow's put-downs of reporters asking timely questions. When USA Today's David Jackson asked why he wouldn't talk about the NSA's telephone program, Snow was icy: "Because it's inappropriate."
He cut down CNN's Suzanne Malveaux, who inquired whether Bush agreed that the immigration debate had taken on racist overtones. "I think I will not try to improve on the president's words from today" was the spokesman's entire answer. Similarly, when American Urban Radio's April Ryan inquired about racial tensions caused by a proposed guest-worker program, Snow wondered "how on earth" that could be the case.
But if some of his questioners were left seething, others seemed infected by sentimentality. "Hi, Tony, welcome!" chirped USA Radio's Connie Lawn. "Nice. Nice and zippy." This produced groans from her colleagues.
The groans turned to cries of disgust when WTOP radio's Ivan Scott prefaced his question by pointing to another journalist in the room and saying, "The beautiful woman in the yellow blouse with the Spanish accent is my wife."
"Oh, God," somebody called out.
With the questioners embarrassing themselves, Snow had an easy time of it. Dressed in a loud red tie and pinstriped suit, he took sips of coffee from a cup emblazoned with the presidential seal. He patiently took questions from all comers. Each of his gestures produced a symphony of shutter clicks, while 16 television cameras vied for the best angle.
"I feel so loved," he exclaimed. It's a feeling he should savor in the days ahead.