It has become a White House ritual of late: President Bush appearing before the press corps to praise a trusted senior White House aide who is resigning to return to private life.
This time, it was his chief spokesman, press secretary Tony Snow, and although there were assurances of continuity, this departure, like those of other top advisers such as Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett, will inevitably hurt. The president said of Snow, “He’s smart. He’s capable. He’s witty. He’s able to talk about issues in a way that the American people can understand.” The White House reporters would agree about the “smart,” “capable” and “witty” part, and Snow could explain the issues much better than his boss.
The White House press secretary holds a unique position in the U.S. government. He generally meets with reporters twice daily, off-camera in the morning at a session called a “gaggle” and on-camera in a formal briefing in the afternoon.
There are no limits on what the reporters can ask, and to first-timers, the Q&A skips maddeningly from topic to topic, often in a kind of shorthand, but this is a president’s best opportunity to articulate his policies and goals. Every president comes to office with a plan to “go over the head” of the White House press corps and directly to the American people. It never works; the White House always comes back to the grind of the daily briefing.
Snow, 52, was a celebrity, a commentator on Fox radio and TV, before he came to the White House in April 2006 and became an even bigger celebrity while there. He was in demand for appearances on behalf of GOP candidates in the 2006 campaign.
He said he is leaving for only one reason — money. He ran out of it. His family became accustomed to a certain style of living on his broadcaster’s salary and he felt it unfair to make them give that up “so Daddy can work at the White House.”
Snow denied emphatically that he was leaving because of the recurrence of his colon cancer. He said to Helen Thomas, a fixture of the White House press corps and his daily, needling adversary, “I have told people that, when I’m your age, I want to be sitting in the front row making life a living hell for a press secretary.”
We hope so, too. Helen is 87.