“There’s a lot of people lining up here you never see,” observed UPI’s veteran White House correspondent Rick Tompkins this morning. Standing outside the James Brady Briefing Room at the White House, Tompkins voiced what all of us regular guys and gals who cover the White House were noticing: that in a fraternal group where everyone knows everyone, there were suddenly a lot of strangers.
The reason was obvious. The “gaggle,” or early morning, off-camera briefing, would be the first performance by newly minted White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. White House correspondents who rarely, if ever, use their “hard pass” were making an appearance to see the “debut” of the former Fox News TV commentator as the first professional journalist in 30 years to serve as the President’s top spokesman.
We realized something was up when it was announced that the briefing scheduled for 9 a.m. would instead be held at 9:30 and that, for the first time since 9/11, the “gaggle” would be held in the press secretary’s personal office rather than the briefing room. Sensing that it would be standing-room-only, I bounded up the stairs to the office and found myself fourth in line. Before long, the line of people waiting for Tony’s “Take One” stretched down to the stairs that lead from the briefing room.
At 9:20, the doors opened and Snow welcomed in the Fourth Estate he worked for until two weeks ago. He announced that coffee would be served, but it did not please people—the room was overflowing with reporters, aides to Snow, and the usual stenographer. Some complained that there was no room to take notes and an estimated 16 people were in the outer office. No one I talked to got any coffee.
Snow read announcements—how the President stood by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson after he admitted confabulating a story in a speech (“Is he going to fire the Cabinet secretary?” was the opening question of press room grande dame Helen Thomas, who somehow wound up in front of Snow’s desk), that the President would meet with former secretaries of State and Defense later that morning, and how he would address the nation on Monday night at 8 p.m. and his topic would be immigration.
The new spokesman went on to dismiss a query about a Harris poll showing the President with a record low 29% approval rating nationwide, that he was “not confirming or denying” reports of mass eavesdropping of phone calls, and that all intelligence gathering has been “lawful” and the proper authorities have been briefed. He also weighed in on behalf of the President’s nominee to head the CIA, saying Mr. Bush “was 100% behind Mike Hayden.” When I asked whether Air Force Gen. Hayden would retire from the Air Force if confirmed as CIA director, Snow told me, “You have to ask Gen. Hayden.”
But the bulk of questions were about the 50-year-old Snow himself and his anticipated performance. Like his predecessors, Snow told us he has “walk-in access to the President,” and that he had no stock in his former employer and thus has nothing to sell. “I wasn’t even smart enough to get in the 401-K plan [at Fox News],” he quipped, adding that his sole retirement would come from his plan with the American Federation Theatre and Recording Artists.
April Ryan of the American Urban Network posed the question on most reporters’ minds: Was there anything to the rumors that the afternoon press briefings at the White House would cease being televised as they have been since the Clinton Administration? “I have a feeling you just can’t wave a wand and change things,” replied Snow, insisting that “rumors of the death of televised briefings have been greatly exaggerated.”
The crowds and the uncomfortable nature of the “gaggle” led Snow to tell the assembled reporters that, while he tried to do something he felt was “genial” and “collegial,” the early morning briefings would be held in the briefing room beginning Monday.
My Take: It didn’t really bother me that much to have to wait for Tony Snow or to be packed like a sardine in his office. Several complained about it and even went online with their pique about being cramped and the shifting time. Some even gave Tony Snow bad reviews because of these house-keeping matters. As one who has been forced to be late for appointments, editorial meetings, and haircuts because the briefings began later than I was first told, this was no big deal; as veteran White House correspondent Ken Hermann used to say to former Press Secretary Scott McClellan, “Tardiness is not an indictable offense.” As for the discomfort of briefing reporters in his office, perhaps Snow should have guessed that his debut would draw a bigger-than-usual audience. In a few weeks, when the Fourth Estate is as used to him as they were McClellan, the participation in the gaggle would drop down to the handful of loyal souls it usually is. To fault Tony Snow for not guessing this and pour invective on him is not only unfair, it’s downright dumb. Stay tuned.