The appointment of Tony Snow as White House press secretary has generated more than the usual amount of media chatter. I don’t recall anything similar when current press secretary Scott McClellan replaced Ari Fleischer during George Bush’s first term or when Joe Lockhart took Mike McCurry’s place during the Clinton administration.
Part of the reason is that the White House press corps thinks it forced Bush to shake up his staff. Stories about how the White House staff was burned out and ineffective in promoting his achievements were a media staple in the months leading up to the resignations of McClellan and White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. Thus, the press is pleased that it not only got Bush to take notice of its agenda, but to act on it.
Another factor is that Snow comes from Fox News, where he has been a radio and television personality for many years. It confirms in the minds of many reporters that the relationship between Fox and the Republican Party goes over the line and makes a mockery of Fox’s journalistic integrity. But of course this is just hypocrisy. The rest of the major media leans so heavily toward the Democratic Party it is simply taken as the normal state of affairs.
Finally, there is the question of why Snow was offered the job and why he took it. After all, he has not been shy about making pointed criticisms of Bush from a conservative perspective. And it is rare for such a prominent media figure to take the job of White House press secretary. One has to go back to Pierre Salinger, who served John F. Kennedy, to find someone of equivalent prominence who came into that position.
In fact, it is uncommon for a White House press secretary to have national media experience. Most press secretaries got there by being the press secretary to congressmen, senators and such. I think that one has to go back to Ron Nessen, Gerald Ford’s press secretary, to find one who came directly out of the news business.
One reason for this is that members of the working press like to pretend that they are nonpartisan, however much they may tilt ideologically toward the Democrats. A corollary to this is that there are so few Republicans in the major media that Republican presidents would not have found many kindred souls there if they had looked.
Also, Republicans know that there is a media double standard: Democrats are permitted to take partisan positions in government and still work the media afterward, while Republicans are almost never allowed to do so. It is inconceivable that a Republican would ever be given the positions that George Stephanopoulos has at ABC News or Bill Moyers has with PBS. A Republican would be viewed as too partisan, while even the most partisan Democrat can pretend to still be objective.
The most a Republican can hope for is a position that involves peddling opinions, as Bill Safire did in The New York Times after being a speechwriter for Richard Nixon. But he’s really the exception that proves the rule that Republicans are persona non grata in the major media.
To me, the most interesting thing about Snow’s appointment is that unlike many other conservative pundits, he never pulled his punches in attacking Bush and Republicans in Congress for their violation of conservative principles. Following are a couple of quotes from recent Snow newspaper columns:
Dec. 3, 2005: "The Republican Party in Washington is in trouble not because it’s overrun by crooks, but because it’s packed with cowards — and has degenerated into a caricature of the party that swept to power 11 years ago promising to take on the federal bureaucracy and liberate the creative genius of American society."
March 17, 2006: "George W. Bush and his colleagues have become not merely the custodians of the largest government in the history of humankind, but also exponents of its vigorous expansion."
And he is no Johnny-come-lately critic. As long ago as Aug. 25, 2000, Snow had this to say about then-candidate George W. Bush: "On the policy side, he has become a classical dime-store Democrat. He gladly will shovel money into programs that enjoy undeserved prestige, such as Head Start."
Funny. When I wrote a book saying pretty much the same thing, I was fired by a conservative think tank that put partisanship above intellectual integrity.
The real importance of the Snow appointment is that he demanded to be involved in White House policy decisions and not just be the guy who announces them. If he tells President Bush the kinds of things he has written in his columns, he can do a lot of good and maybe rescue him from creeping political irrelevancy.