On his second turn "at bat" — namely, at briefing the White House press corps — Tony Snow hit a home run. On Friday, his "opener" as press secretary to President Bush had reporters screaming for him to be benched; in trying to be genial, Snow moved the off-camera, early morning briefing known as the "gaggle" to his office, upstairs from the James Brady briefing room at the White House, and got Bronx cheers from the correspondents crowded into the room and out into the hall. In a scathing, Page Two review in the Washington Post on Saturday (May 13), Dana Milbank referred to Snow’s first day with the press as "barely controlled chaos," and cited complaints from NBC-TV’s Kelly O’Donnell about his change of the time from 9:00 to 9:30 AM as well what he dubbed Snow’s own "arsenal of no-comments."
That was then, this is now. This morning, the 50-year-old Snow mounted the podium in the press room (fulfilling his promise to move gaggles back there to accommodate the crowds) only moments after the announced 8:45 a.m. briefing time. Colleague Andrei Sitov of Tass and I agreed that it was a bit unusual seeing the tall, angular Snow in the same spot occupied by the diminutive Scott McClellan for nearly three years.
As McClellan always did, Snow began by announcing the President’s schedule, notably including a National Security Council meeting and his address to the nation tonight. Anticipating queries from the packed room, the President’s top spokesman ran through the "tic toc" (White House shorthand for "chronology") on the speech, which he revealed, began during a discussion with staffers during a recent trip to California and culminated with discussions with lawmakers and "getting their sense" of the issue. The President had his first "formal run-through" of his address on Friday, added Snow, who will preside over a briefing on the speech for reporters in late-afternoon today.
Although Snow said the President would no doubt make calls to give a heads-up before he went on television, the only call he has made that the spokesman would divulge was that to Mexican President Vicente Fox. "He assured [Fox] that this was no attempt to militarize the border," said Snow.
Snow went on to emphasize that the President hoped to "build up the Border Patrol" to a level "more dramatic" than in present immigration proposals in either the House or Senate. He also stressed that the National Guard would be in a "non-law enforcement" role in its border assignment, and that the Guard’s prime assignments are fighting in the war on terror and fighting natural disasters. "Only a small number of guardsmen at any one time" will be on the border, insisted Snow. He also reminded reporters that the National Guard is "under the auspices of the governors [of states]."
As for whether there would be deployment of active duty troops to the border, Snow replied: "Not that I’m aware of."
As to whether the President is seeking "political cover" from conservatives in sending the Guard to the border, the press secretary fired back that "it’s more political opportunity than political cover [on] a very contentious issue," that Bush "cares very deeply about the issue" as a former border state governor. Looking ahead, Snow predicted that because of the "unprecedented agreement" between the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate, that Senate debate on an immigration bill would soon commence, and that there would "be a vote on the bill early next week."
Snow did raise a few eyebrows when he said that one of the President’s chief criterion for an immigration reform package was "assimilation," a word that veteran White House reporters had not heard before from the President himself or his spokesman. He explained that this was a "path to citizenship" for those who are in the U.S. and the President would outline it in his address this evening.
The newly-minted press secretary concluded by confirming there would be a waiver for those who didn’t sign up for the new prescription drug measure who have incomes of "$15,000 or less."
General verdict: Tony Snow may not, as today Post’s "Style" section profile recalls, been any major star when he took a stab at the baseball team at Davidson College in North Carolina, but today he was a home-run hitter in the press room.