“Where ya been?”
“Just hanging out.”
The opening exchange between veteran CBS correspondent Mark Knoller and Press Secretary Tony Snow opened what was clearly one of the most ballyhooed of briefings for White House reporters — and what turned out to be one of the most memorable of my career as a White House correspondent.
As we all have known since his dramatic appearance at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner April 21, Tony Snow would be returning on Monday morning, April 30th, to his familiar podium beneath the official emblem of the White House. For more than a month, the President’s top spokesman had been missing from his familiar haunts as he underwent surgery for the cancer he has been battling since he was a Fox TV commentator and had not yet become the third press secretary to George W. Bush on April 21 of last year.
Although he said he will commence chemotherapy to attack “some cancers in the peritoneum” on Friday of this week, Snow insisted that it would not interfere with his twice-a-day briefings for reporters. In his words, “The design is to throw it into remission and transform it into a chronic disease. If cancer is merely a nuisance for a long period of time, that’s fine with me.”
|HUMAN EVENTS’ John Gizzi and fellow White House correspondents welcome Press Secretary Tony Snow back Monday morning.|
|HUMAN EVENTS’Former California Republican State Chairman John McGraw meets Tony Snow following his early morning session with reporters. That same day, Snow announced he was entering the hospital for further treatment for cancer.|
Other “welcome backs” followed, and then more questions about Iraq and American Urban Network reporter April Ryan’s poignant question: “Tony, are we winning the war?” Undaunted, Snow said: “Yes, exactly, welcome back” — prompting more laughter, as if to say “This is what I came back for?” Sure enough, more questions on Iraq came forth, and then Knoller brought up the interviews with former CIA Director George Tenet and the doubts he raised about the U.S. going into Iraq in the first place.
“I will say that you had a skillful substitute,” veteran radio talk show host Les Kinsolving began, with a bow to Snow’s deputy, Dana Perino, who has filled in as press secretary while Snow was convalescing. The ever-gracious Snow immediately shot back that “Dana and everybody else in the press office have done an extraordinary job. . .So, yes, a star is born.” Kinsolving then launched into his usual “two-parters,” asking if believed the Washington Post had given too much coverage to the Tobias scandal (“Dana, do you want to take this one?” said Snow) and whether he believed that many or any Americans believe Tobias’ calim that he used Deborah Palfrey’s service for massages and not sex.
Absence had not dulled Snow’s wits in dueling with Kinsolving. He replied: “I don’t know. . . We’re saddened and he resigned, and it was the proper thing to do.”
From Tobias to Tenet to Iraq and back to Tobias — Snow was at the top of his game and, to the surprise of no observer, the correspondents gave him rousing applause when he finished. Then, as always, Tony Snow waited until every reporter had left the room to talk with each informally. That has been his modis operandi — a universe removed from his immediate, leave-the-podium-and-slam-the-door predecessors — and one of the reason he enjoys the good will of the correspondents, even when the questions and answers grow incendiary. But today was not a day for informal questions for the spokesmen, but good wishes and hearty welcomes.
Tony Snow is by no means out of the proverbial woods and told us as much. The prayers and the warm notes won’t let up, as they should not. For now, in a town of cynicism where scandal is mounting and relations between the questioners and the questioned officials are further deteriorating, the return of Snow was a bright and vibrant moment — and something that anyone who was there won’t soon forget.