It's a tough job, and Tony Snow opts to let someone else do it
He departed the post of White House press secretary on Friday, with a little jab at the media.
WASHINGTON — Inside the White House press secretary's West Wing closet there hangs a bulletproof vest, its pockets growing full with messages written by departing press secretaries to their successors. The tradition started with Ron Nessen, who served President Gerald Ford. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Ford's press secretary.]
The advice on those notes is private, and when Tony Snow was asked at a Monitor breakfast on Friday – his last day on the job – what he wrote to Dana Perino, the new press secretary, he demurred. "But," he allowed, "the one thing that I advise everybody … [is to] understand that the White House is a temporary posting but a wonderful one, and [to] enjoy it."
Those may be best understood as the words of a man who has survived the job with his reputation intact, and can now look back on his 16 months as President Bush's front man with fondness. Ari Fleischer, Mr. Bush's first press secretary, once told CNN it was "the most grinding, pressure-filled, difficult, grueling job you could ever imagine." Jake Siewert, President Bill Clinton's last press secretary, speaks of phones that start ringing at 6:30 in the morning and don't stop.
Mr. Snow himself bemoaned the trend in news coverage – driven by 24-hour cable television – that has reporters chasing the latest wrinkle and failing to get to deeper questions.
"The phones start melting, because somebody has reported on one cable network some little factoid that had not been in evidence before," he said. "A lot of times, those factoids don't really mean a ... thing. But it's a novelty. So everybody's chasing novelty and not news."
Still, at the Aug. 31 announcement of his departure, Snow described the job as "a blast." He left his White House perch after only 16 months because, he says, he and his wife and three children could no longer afford to live on his $168,000-a-year salary. As a Fox News commentator and talk-radio host, he had pulled in considerably more than that, and he now plans to return to the private sector. For a time, there was talk that Snow might run for office – and in fact, during the 2006 midterms, he became the first White House press secretary to headline fundraisers for candidates – but given his health problems, he has other priorities.
"I want to fight cancer and spend time with my family," he says.
As White House press secretary, Snow approached his job differently from most of his predecessors. He was more focused on selling the president and his programs, and not just providing information to reporters.
"You were almost as likely to see him on TV on one of the morning shows from the [White House] lawn as you were to see him on TV in a briefing," says Martha Joynt Kumar, an expert on White House communications at Towson University in Maryland.
His successor, Ms. Perino, whose first day was Friday, will be the second woman to hold the position. The first was Dee Dee Myers, who worked for Mr. Clinton. The diminutive Perino, a one-time high- school debater who held various press positions around Washington before joining the White House's press office, got high marks as acting secretary when Snow took a health leave earlier this year.
But just because the Bush presidency is winding down, that does not mean his press operation is any less significant. "It's an important job right down to the end," says Ms. Kumar. "We only have one president at a time. People may be focused on who's next, but the reality is it's the incumbent who's making the decisions."