Dodging questions is a key part of the White House press secretary's assignment. At one point in a Monitor-sponsored breakfast with reporters on Thursday, Tony Snow, press secretary and assistant to the president quipped, "I'm going to engage in a little cotton-mouthed diplo-speak."
It is an example of the self-deprecatory humor that Snow has brought to the White House since his first briefing on May 8. "I must say the first day I was absolutely scared stiff because I did not know what to expect, I had never done anything like it," Snow says.
Snow's predecessor in the post, Scott McLellan, was a long-time Bush loyalist who stuck closely to his talking points and seldom seemed to be enjoying himself in the verbal give and take with reporters. It is not clear whether reporters get more information from Snow. But the White House informational diet is clearly being served up now with greater verbal dexterity and humor.
Snow says that what he brings is a major change in attitude toward the press. "I don't come out of the political side where a lot of times you see people coming out of the political side and they will look at the press room and they will look at it as a den of vipers, a seething hostile mass," Snow said. "What I see is a lot of people trying to get information so they can write a story...I think the change in the point of view makes all the difference in the world."
Before moving to Fox News, Snow had a long career in newspapers, working for the Greensboro Record, The Virginian-Pilot, The Detroit News, and The Washington Times. His newspaper column was syndicated to more than 200 papers.
So he relishes the reporting aspect of his current position. "The one thing that I hadn't counted on that I rather enjoy is that the press secretary's job is a reporting job," Snow said. "So in any given day we take a close look at a lot of stories and my first answer is, 'well what is going on here?' and so you make the calls. And you call around and you talk to people who are involved."
Getting ready to answer reporters' questions at two formal sessions a day involves intense preparation. There are days when Snow, a self-described "night person" gets up at 3:45 a.m. to prepare. "The biggest challenge is... just trying to make sure you know enough about the things that are going to be of interest to reporters," he says. "There are a lot of days I come in and I've got to study to the exam. And then, over time, I develop the kind of background that will enable me with greater confidence to give detailed answers to such questions. But it is fun."
Part of the fun is having a voice in policy making. Snow sought assurances on that front before taking the job. "I think when I was talking about having a policy role, I was pushing against an open door," Snow said. "Obviously, when it comes to getting involved in the thickets of [the Geneva Convention's] Common Article Three I just keep my yap shut. That's a lawyers' issue. On the other hand, on issues where I have long experience having been in the business for 28 years as a reporter and editorial writer ... there are areas where I have built up a certain amount of intellectual capital and I certainly put in my two cents worth."
When he was asked about White House negotiations with Senate Republicans over legislation regarding treatment of terrorism suspects, Snow said, "the status is ongoing ...this is like warm milk on the kitchen counter right now. Whatever news I can get you will turn to yogurt by the time you get back to the office."
Turning to the international scene, and efforts to end the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, Snow said, "There are behind the scenes, ongoing diplomatic efforts to try to put together the right kind of coalitions of influence that will enable a blue-helmeted UN force to enter Darfur. The president has been speaking about Darfur for a very long time. He has been pressuring the United Nations, pushing the United Nations to acknowledge the genocide that is going on and to act aggressively to deal with it. He is continuing to do so. There is considerable behind-the-scenes diplomacy taking place right now that I am not at liberty to discuss but at some point it will become known. But let me just assure you that the president has been very actively engaged."
With the upcoming Congressional elections marking the start of the final two year's of Mr. Bush's term, Snow was asked about the president's legacy. "The president is not really a legacy guy," Snow said. "Last year he read three biographies of George Washington who, having been dead for 207 years, is still the subject of reappraisal. And if you are visiting that upon arguably the most popular president in American history and certainly one of the most consequential, the idea that you are somehow you are going to be able to retire to Crawford knowing what your legacy is is pure folly. So his view is to do the job and do it the best he can and take on big issues."