By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Why Tony Snow matters

Is there a larger meaning to President Bush’s decision to name Tony Snow as his new spokesman? If you subscribe to the theory — as I do — that the Ari Fleischer/Scott McClellan era was defined principally by an attempt to marginalize the national media and downgrade their perceived importance, then I think the answer is yes.

The Washington Post, not surprisingly, appears to be more surefooted than the New York Times in analyzing the Snow appointment. The Times’ Jim Rutenberg is quite taken with the fact that Snow, a high-profile Fox News pundit, has been known to criticize the president. Rutenberg writes:

Mr. Snow is something the White House briefing room has not yet had at the lectern: a star of the opinionated cable news era. But he is also something Mr. Bush has never had: a free-wheeling outsider in a very public position, and one with a history of sharing critical opinions of the president.

True enough. But the key to the Snow appointment, it seems to me, is that Snow is a player who actually believes the mainstream media have an important role to play in keeping the public informed. Here is the lead of Jim VandeHei and Michael Fletcher’s piece in the Post:

President Bush’s decision to hire conservative commentator Tony Snow as his chief spokesman reflects a consensus among the president and his top advisers that his White House operation has been too insular and needs to be more aggressive in engaging with the news media and other Washington constituencies, according to Bush aides and outside advisers.

Last week, Jay Rosen marked McClellan’s departure by arguing that McClellan had been put in place as part of Bush’s policy of “strategic non-communication.” Rosen wrote:

McClellan was a necessary figure in what I have called Rollback — the attempt to downgrade the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country. It had once been accepted wisdom that by carefully “feeding the beast” an Administration would be rewarded with better coverage in the long run. Rollback, the policy for which McClellan signed on, means not feeding but starving the beast, while reducing its effectiveness as an interlocutor with the President and demonstrating to all that the fourth estate is a joke.

I think Rosen’s on to something, although I disagree with his contention that McClellan represented a departure from Fleischer, who, Rosen claims, was unwilling to play the role of being “the jerk at the podium” — and who, besides, had an unacceptable (to the White House) “twinkle in his eye” when dissembling. I don’t see how you can say that McClellan’s act was much different from Fleischer’s, just a whole lot less competent.

Still, there may be something to the notion that the White House couldn’t truly express the depth of its contempt for the media until it had appointed an utterly incompetent spokesman. After all, the very fact that the White House would hire someone with Fleischer’s smooth performance skills suggested that, on some level, the administration took the media seriously.

As it has been forced to do again. Media Matters is very excited about what it calls “The many falsehoods of Tony Snow.” And, yes, David Brock and company have compiled quite a dossier. But this appointment is about music, not lyrics. And the music is that Snow is someone of substance who sees the care and feeding of the national press as a job that’s actually worth doing.

Last Sunday, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” former Newt Gingrich spokesman Tony Blankley, now editorial-page editor of the Washington Times, defined what the problem has been for the past five-plus years:

I think it is a mistake of a White House press operation not to engage the press corps here. I think that it can be done effectively and honestly, and in a serious way. You’re going to get hit a lot, but to put up the shield and have no communication is going to induce future administrations to get into the same kind of — they exaggerate the mess they’re going to get into when they have no communication back and forth.

By the way, one of the good things that a White House gets from talking to the press is, is reconnaissance of how the press and to some extent the country is feeling. I think it’s — that two-way exchange is really vital to the process.

That’s the shortcoming that the White House undertook to address with the Snow appointment. The question is whether Snow is the decider-in-chief’s idea or someone whom new chief of staff Josh Bolsten imposed on Bush at a moment of presidential weakness, and against whom Bush will soon rebel. We’ll find out.

And here’s where it could get dicey for Bush: Snow strikes me as eminently likely to resign and pop off if he finds himself getting marginalized. Fleischer and McClellan would never do such a thing. Which is why this could turn out to be a pretty interesting appointment.

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  1. Anonymous

    I think you are right to point out that Bush is not by inclincation a risk taker. That, by the way, is why his Iraq adventure is so reckless. Didn’t realize the high stakes nature of the appointment until I read this. I was inclined to dismiss it as more bullshit for the media culture. Very interesting analysis.

  2. Anonymous

    Wow, Dan. Of all the stretches you’ve stretched, this is the stretchiest. 1.)If anything, Snow’s appointment says more about Faux News than it does about the White House. I’m sure pundits and journos have made the leap before, but this is pretty blatant. 2.)In many respects, the cat’s out of the bag on most issues. Most reasonable humans have determined a.) we were misled and blatantly lied to in the run-up to war with Iraq. b.) Bush approved illegal spying on Americans c.)Bush and his crew approved the Plame leak, and yes, it’s worse than Watergate d.)G.W. proved that yes, he doesn’t care about black people with Katrina e.) so on and so forth.Snow truly does have the job of our old friend Baghdad Bob–to put a happy face on the ugly, ugly reality that has been Bush’s presidency. He comes from a dishonest “news” channel, started out at a dishonest newspaper, and was a Republican shill for the last Bush. Don’t expect a new era of honesty. Deck chairs, Titanic, and all that…

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 12:20: Can you say “non sequitur”? Where do I say that Snow’s appointment signals a “new era of honesty”? I’m talking about a new era of engagement, which is not the same thing.

  4. Wes

    Well Danny Boy, methinks the job in itself is basically fluff. When has anything of news value come from the WH press corps? It’s a total waste of money and talent to bury reporters there. Which, of course, may be the admin’s purpose.

  5. Don

    Scott McClelland was the ultimate slickster. It was fun to watch him work. President Bush is really going to miss his skill at avoiding unnecessary and embarrassing questions and sidestepping the ones he didn’t want to answer. But then, I’m not a member of the liberal press.

  6. Anonymous

    No, you didn’t say anything about a new era of honesty, but it was your overall tone, which seemed to me to be signaling that you might actually be giving this guy a chance, that bugged me. Just because Tony Snow might be less robotic than McClelland, doesn’t mean we’re gonna get any more decent information out of these people. It’s almost the perfect distillation of the “don’t shoot the messenger” cliche. I certainly have no ill will toward Snow, or McClelland. But all this “White House staff shakeup” talk is a bunch of bull. The resignations I want to see are Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice–for starters. If “engagement” to you simply means lying and stonewalling, but now with a smile and the occasional witty turn of phrase, then I guess you have something to look forward to. But, as my previous post outlined, the underlying issues that are killing this country remain.

  7. Anonymous

    Tony Snow will last 6 months, mark my words. It’s a snow job, it’s snowing, and he won’t last. Bush is a dimwit weak leader and he is bringing America down. Tony Snow will not and cannot help and he will resign by New Year’s Day. Watch.Nobody can save this sinking ship that is America today.And if you thought 911 was terrible and apocalyptic, O America, and it was, remember that the terrorists are right now at this very moment planning and plotting and preparing another even more serious attack on USA and USA people, inside our borders, and it will be even more horrific than 911. Why can’t anyone see this or even talk about it?It is coming….SOON! Be prepared, be very prepared. It seems that 911 didn’t really prepare us and we have become soft and lazy and consuming consumerists again. America, and DK, wake up!

  8. Anonymous

    Anon 12:39, cut that crap, you idiot!Why do you find it pleasurable to scare people gratuitously?ALL of us risk being hurt in an accident EVERYzDAY. There are so many risks and the risks you mention are obviously there, bt what do you want to live and make us live in their shadow, wetting our pants, you idiot??I missed the last two deleted posts (what was going on there?!?!) but I sure hope they were much more crass than your post that deserves to be taken out too.HAve you been reading too much of the Rapture stuff??N.

  9. metallicaMobes

    I wouldn’t say that McClellan was a “slickster,” more that we was a “prickster.” I’m a strong conservative, and I could not STAND this guy. How anyone can talk that much without saying a damn thing is beyond me. He must have been hanging out with Joe Biden for a good amount of time.

  10. Anonymous

    Here we go again,Another amateurish cheap shot that shows how ignorant this “strong conservative” is (insert jokes here)Are you comparing a mediocre spokesperson to a US Senator?? I don’t see any parallels or common grounds.One is a lot smarter than the other. By far. And they operate on very different levels.Scott is a good guy thrown in a difficult situation and it is obvious it was hard for him to honestly keep up the appearences but his job called for those tough situations. If he were truly dishonest, he would believe a lot of the hogwash and would talk more naturally, like he really believed them. He did’t. He was not faking it very well.Biden is a self promoter and self absorbed sometimes and goes on and on. But that is true for so many other senators and reps. What’s new?I just don’t see the relevance of his imperfection to Scotts discussion here.You really need a new brain, Dave.N.

  11. metallicaMobes

    tsk tsk, Mr. N., although I appreciate your concern for the state of my cerebrum, I’m going to hold off on that brain transplant. And if you thought that I was drawing a deep connection between Mr. McClellan and Senator Biden, I would worry about more of your own intellectual capactiy. I was obviously making a satirical referene to the fact that Biden talks forever without saying anything, and McClellan spoke a bunch of non-information. So sorry if that analogy is too flawed for your strong central nervous system to tolerate.Keep chuggin that Kool-Aid,Dave

  12. Jenna

    The thing is, matters to whom?

  13. Anonymous

    McClellan was bad,was hired to be bad, and disappointed nobody in the Oval office by being bad. Now that Bush is at 32% he’s awakened to notion that he needs to actually work at this, and someone with a brain has to sell lousy policy or he goes down as the TWPE (the worst president ever).

  14. Anonymous

    (Dave, I’ll respond to fallacies you post, not your food fights.)To Anon 8:49 and others in the same line of thought,I am not sure we can blame a whole lot on the press front people in the WH. THEY wish it were that simple. They have a policy and results problem, not a form and PR problem.If you want to talk about a scary and incompetent person, I’d look to Scott’s brother heading our health care system and championing some very stupid changes that are very detrimental to many, especially many low income senior citizens.Talk about incompetence and dishonesty, I’d start there or their hack mother who raises money by the millions for GOP campaigns.Scott is a scapegoat by a large measure. Even Ari would have the hardest of times in the same period. He was smart to jump ship when the tide was turning and save his skin.N.

  15. Anonymous

    How dare Kennedy give Tony Snow the benefit of the doubt, after all, Dan Kennedy must follow the Buzzflash, Air America rules of engagement. Namely: all Republicans are evil and all Republicans are maudlin and vacuous.

  16. Stella

    12:07AMaudlin? Hardly. False and feeble for sure. Depraved liars and genuine fools, yes.

  17. Anonymous

    SUSAN AGER in the Detroit papers writes that SNOW ”was diagnosed with colon cancer, a disease that killed his mother when he was just 18.He had surgery for the cancer 14 months ago, taking off only about two months from his work with Fox. This week, his doctor told him he was still cancer-free, and only the next day did he make the decision to join hands with W.Snow’s dad, Jim, advised his son against the job.”Six months, tops, and Tony steps down. The cancer sidebar says it all.

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