On his final day as assistant to the president and press secretary, Tony Snow was the guest at Friday's Monitor breakfast.
Mr. Snow and his assistant, Ed Buckley, walked the two blocks from the White House to the Sofitel Hotel ballroom where some 30 reporters had gathered.
Snow is leaving the high profile position after 16 months on the job. "I want to fight cancer and spend time with my family," he said at the breakfast.
Through the years, nine White House press secretaries have met with the breakfast group, starting with the late George Reedy, who worked for President Johnson.
That was a very different time in the media world. In a taped Oval Office conversation excerpted by USA Today, President Johnson once told Reedy that poor grooming was keeping the president from naming him to an even loftier post.
"I want to do it, but you've got to help yourself," LBJ said. "You come in with a wrinkled suit and you come in with a dirty shirt; you come in with your tie screwed up. I want you to look real nice. Get yourself a corset if you have to."
Snow, on the other hand, is the very model of an impeccably dressed, intellectually nimble presidential spokesperson, optimally prepared for the YouTube age.
There are lots of reasons for the press corps' affection for Snow. My list would include his grace in the face of adversity and his unfailing courtesy to those of us who sit in the White House briefing room's cheap seats.
Since Snow announced his departure, some critics have said there was a disconnect between the Bush administration policies he defended and the details of Snow's personal experience.
"Snow's own life in many ways symbolizes the downside of the ownership society – and suggests how much a government role in health and retirement benefits is necessary," opined a Sept. 4 essay in Slate. While touting policies that encouraged workers to fund their own retirements, Snow failed to take out his own 401(k) plan, it alleged. While advocating health-savings accounts and high-deductible medical plans as a solution to healthcare, Snow relied on the comprehensive medical insurance available to White House workers, it pointed out.
Asked about the essay at the breakfast, Snow replied that some facts were wrong. For example, he did have a 401(k) plan when he worked as a radio host but not when he belonged to a union as a Fox News TV host. "Please call the person you are writing about before trying to comment sagely about their life and times," he quipped.
And on the health-insurance issue, Snow said, "It is a mistake to confuse high government expenditure with compassion, which is the embedded assumption there."
One of Snow's most interesting responses concerned how the nature of White House press coverage has changed. Here is an extended excerpt of what he said on that topic:
"Something very interesting and somewhat troubling is taking place, which is that the advent of 24-hour cable has everybody so eager to get the scoop – by scoop it means some new piece of information that hasn't been reported in the previous hour – that you see a change in the approach of many reporters to what is going on.
"Rather than having some in depth and thoughtful analysis pieces, you've got process, process, process. And a lot of times you have people doing the process piece as opposed to trying to sort of get into the guts of the thing. It is difficult. News organizations don't have the resources they used to have to set people free to do a lot of those long investigative pieces and series that they used to do. But it doesn't change my thinking that the profession is poorer for it. So I do think a lot of times, if I have a frustration, it is that ... I love working with the White House press corps and sometimes we do end up speaking different languages.
"I do think there is something to the fact that, in general terms, members of the press tend to be more liberal. That's just the way it is. If you doubt it, just look around and think how many people in this room voted for a Republican the last time around. On the other hand, it is not something where reporters get into the business to be anti-Republican crusaders. I don't think that is true at all. I just think that sometimes there is, to quote Cool Hand Luke, 'a failure to communicate.'
"And it is incumbent on those who work in Republican White Houses to try to bridge that gap by trying to talk about things in a way that allows reporters to understand intellectually the underpinnings of what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we think it is going to play out. And I think if there is a shortcoming, sometimes it is a shortcoming on our part.
"But again, in overall terms, I think the one thing that maybe is most frustrating is sometimes everybody swoops in on the process questions and never gets to the deeper questions."
Snow lingered after the session chatting with reporters and said he is considering writing two books. It is clear that the soon-to-be-former press secretary intends to stay active in political life. One goal, he says, is to "play some constructive role in lowering the temperature" of the country's political dialogue.