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.