'You'll Beat It, Tony!'

It was perhaps the most moving — no, unforgettable — briefing I have had since I became a White House correspondent: the announcement at Tuesday morning’s gaggle (early morning briefing) that the growth that led Tony Snow to check into the hospital on Friday was cancerous and had spread to the press secretary’s liver.

“He spoke to the President this morning,” Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino told our hushed gathering at the briefing room, and then she broke into tears as she said: “He is in consultation with his doctors on chemotherapy treatments. He said that he’s going after it as aggressively as he can.”

“I’m sorry,” a visibly moved Perino sobbed, “It’s just really hard for us at the White House. I know that you love him too , but it was hard news for us.”

There wasn’t a question about any topic other than the man who wasn’t there. And before Perino concluded the gaggle, there wasn’t a dry eye among the normally hard-edged Members of the Fourth Estate whose verbal jousting with Snow often seemed a workout in the gym for the wordsmith-turned-spokesman.

Even seasoned sparring partners of Snow such as Helen Thomas were worried about one of the best-loved press secretaries of modern times. “Tell him we hope he’ll stay on the job,” called out the grand dame of the White House press corps from her front row seat.

After nearly three decades of campaign operatives in the position of press secretary, Tony Snow — formerly an editor of the Washington Times and Fox-TV News commentator — was the first professional journalist to hold the job since Ron Nessen left NBC News to become Gerald Ford’s press secretary in 1974. Snow reportedly took a tremendous pay cut last year when he succeeded Scott McClellan behind the podium and beneath the White House emblem so familiar to fans of the daily briefings on CSPAN and other networks.

Those viewers — and those of us who asked the questions at those daily briefings — quickly realized we had a different kind of press secretary on our hands. With his television commentator’s good looks and pundit’s rapid delivery, the man the President nicknamed “Snowbird” demonstrated he could thrust and parry with the best of them — Helen Thomas, David Gregory of NBC, and others. Gracious to a fault (he once thanked me on camera for correcting him on the point that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki was “head of government” instead of “head of state” as he had said — “It’s been a long day,” the tired Snow explained), Snow also did not waste the time of reporters or viewers and could swiftly shut down questioners he felt were using the briefing time to preen for the camera.

Past press secretaries bolted from the briefing room as soon as the morning or afternoon sessions with the correspondents was over. Not so Tony Snow: he would sip his signature tall cup of coffee, answer questions, and even whisper an occasional favor (“Why don’t you hold off on that for a few days?” he once asked about a subject I had pressed him on, when we took a walk after one briefing — “They have a meeting on this today. ..we haven’t had good answers so far; the subject was the fired U.S. attorneys). At the Friday early morning session, I was half-way down the street when I realized I had left my recorder in the briefing room. Bounding back up the stairs and into the room to retrieve it, I found — to my surprise — Tony all alone with Trudy Feldman, whose outlets for columns are a mystery to most in the press corps. But Tony Snow was in no hurry and gave her the attention he would a network bureau chief.

But what I think of the most as I pray for the recovery of this remarkable man was just that: an accomplished writer, speaker, and musician, Snow always had time for everyone. He was gracious to both of my parents when I introduced them at White House Christmas Parties; when I brought friends from out of town or interns from my office to a briefing, they would inevitably want a picture with the press secretary and Snow never failed to comply. On Friday, when I snapped a shot of Snow with former Republican State Chairman John McGraw of California and told him how McGraw had been the youngest party leader in California since John C. Fremont, Snow said: “That must have been around 1856, when Fremont ran for President;”

Along with Laura Bush and Chief Justice John Roberts, Tony Snow is one of the best-liked faces of an Administration that is not generally popular these days. He became the first White House press secretary to campaign for candidates — and they sought him with vigor. Pundits and pols speculated that the Virginia native would himself run for the Senate from the Old Dominion and even make a race for President himself.

Now Tony Snow is in a rematch with the cancer he had beaten shortly before assuming his current post. From my interns who were his fans to my colleagues with whom he loved to banter, the prayers are mounting that the closing prediction of Reuters correspondent Steve Holland when the briefing ending comes true: “He’ll beat it.”