Tales from the White House: Snow and Berger

The Tony Snow Show

Although much of the media made federal cases out of the dust-up Sheryl Crow and Al Gore’s producer had with Karl Rove and the standard Sunday articles about the “glitterati” followed the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner the night before, they only touched on the real story of the evening:  the return of Tony Snow.

“He’s here tonight!” Acting White House Press Secretary Dana Perino told me when she came by our table at the Washington Hilton.  As I introduced her to my wife — who was equally surprised by the good news about the press secretary who has been battling cancer — Perrino quickly added: “And he’s coming back to work next week.”  (A check with the White House this morning indicated that the actual date of Snow’s return to the briefing room is Monday, May 30th).

Word that Tony Snow was at the White House Correspondents Association dinner spread through the Hilton ballroom like a tornado.  When WHCA President Steve Scully finally introduced him, the response was overwhelming:  a five-minute standing ovation, complete with wild cheers and many tears.  Whispered speculation about how Snow — last seen in public when he announced he was going for further treatment on March 23rd — was put to rest when the President’s top spokesman strode onto the stage, every inch the magnetic former TV commentator who has become a near-matinee idol to the legions of viewers of his briefings on C-SPAN.

In his familiar FM-voice, Snow thanked the audience for their prayers and then introduced perhaps the funniest part of the evening:  David Letterman’s “Top 10” gaffes by the President, who laughed along heartily with everyone as clips of mis-statements and mis-steps ran.  In deference to the tragedy of Virginia Tech, the President kept his remarks to a somber few minutes and introduced headliner impressionist Rich Little.

A poignant irony of Snow’s triumphant return was that it occurred on April 21st , one year to the day that the President announced he would be the new White House press secretary.  Since I had difficulty finding a parking place that morning and President Bush — as he does with press conferences — sprung that on the reporters at the last minute, I missed the announcement.  But when I arrived for the regular gaggle (early morning briefing) by departing Press Secretary Scott McLellan, who should emerge from the offices in the James Brady Briefing Room but Snow himself.

“Long time, no see,” he said, greeting me.  I thanked him for his graciousness toward my mother when we were all guests at the White House Christmas party for journalists in December and he remembered meeting my wife when he was an editorialist for the Detroit News.  He wasn’t there to work, Snow explained, but to just get reacquainted with the press corps, many of whom were actually old friends of his.  Ann Compton of ABC, for example, greeted the press secretary-in-waiting with a warm hug.  Snow then walked patiently through the press room and listened to all who were there, a trademark of his when he assumed the job and always waited to talk to anyone who stayed on after his briefings.

Two weeks later, Snow held the first gaggle of his own and, as he and anyone who was there would admit, it was a disaster.  He wanted to restore the old custom of holding the gaggle in the press secretary’s office.  By the time he had revived it, however, the number of attendees had so swelled that it was an uncomfortable sea of humanity.  Just as he would admit mistakes from the podium, Snow said it was a wrong call and the gaggles were thereupon always held in the briefing room.  It was a glitch all right, but he moved on.

One could say that his recent bout with illness was a glitch.  But, as on other occasons, Tony Snow has faced it and moves on.

White House Won’t Touch Berger Lie Detector Controversy

Despite calls from Rep. Tom Davis (Va.) and the other Republicans on the House Government Operations Committee, the White House signaled today that it would not direct the Department of Justice to administer a lie detector test to former Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger.

At this afternoon’s briefing for White House reporters, Acting Press Secretary Dana Perino told me that she did not know if the President was aware of the Justice Department’s brush-off to the call from Davis and the Republican lawmakers for a polygraph examination of Berger, who pled guilty to removing documents from the National Archives in ’05 while a member of the 9-11 Commission.

“I do know that it would be inappropriate,” added Perino, “for the President to get himself involved in an investigation.”

At this point, there is no ongoing investigation into Berger’s activities, although Davis has repeatedly voiced concerns that not everything is known over what the former Clinton aide took from the Archives.

“So he has no opinion,” I followed up with, “[And] you have no opinion on –"

Perino shot back: “I have not talked to the President about it, John.”

“All right,” I countered, “Will you?”

“I’ll see if I can do that,” Perino replied, and then moved quickly on to another reporter for questions.

Perino’s apparent dodge on whether the Justice Department should act on the call of Davis and the Republican House Members on a polygraph test for Berger comes at a time when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is under fire on Capitol Hill for his handling of the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys. 

Davis made it clear he was not pleased with the response from Perino.  As his spokesman David Marin told me after learning of her response, “We would hope that the White House, in order to answer the many unanswered questions surrounding the Berger matter, would advise the Attorney General that it’s in the public’s interest to give Mr. Berger the polygraph test he agreed to take [as part of his ’05 plea bargain].  Otherwise, we’re left with a picture of a startlingly incurious Justice Department, and that’s not good for anyone.”