Welcome Back, Tony

“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.

So today, in effect, was Tony’s “Take Two” — the smooth-talking and well-liked spokesman will deal with his cancer one step at a time but fully intends to treat it as, in his words, “a nuisance.” The twice-a-day briefings, notably the televised afternoon sessions that won Snow a fervent national fan club for his jousting with my colleagues and me, will resume.

Today’s “comeback” was at the “gaggle,” normally our early-morning briefing from which television cameras are absent. But, given the high drama surrounding the gaggle, they were there as well as cameras for still shots from the print media and just people who wanted to cherish the moment. Where the gaggle is usually far less attended than the televised session (you don’t have to ask why!), every seat was filled in the temporary briefing room a few blocks from the White House (where renovation of our regular quarters is about to be completed and where we are supposed to return in a few weeks.) Even fixtures of the press room such as longtime radio reporter Connie Lawn, the second most senior member of the press corps, had to stand or sit outside the realm of chairs reserved for correspondents.

Time and treatment had not taken the fight out of Tony Snow. After reading the President’s schedule and thanking reporters for their prayers and good wishes (“I’m just going to stop being choked up, because you guys have been so wonderful”), it was back to familiar form.

Terry Hunt of the Associated Press led off the questioning, asking whether the White House had “been alerted when the Iran [sic] supplemental is coming down. And how quickly will the President act to veto it?”

“As far as the Iran [sic] supplemental, we have not,” Snow replied “So the real question…

“Iraq,” someone called out to correct questioner and press secretary.

Never one to stumble for long, Snow rebounded and said “I mean, the Iraq supplemental. Yes. The Iran supplemental would be entirely different.”

The room broke up into laughter, pushing out any lingering from Snow’s earlier, emotional remarks.

Then he was on a roll. “Did we leaving the cameras on?” he said in mock wonderment (cameramen had left after the opening remarks, returning the gaggle to its familiar untelevised status).

“How much is Iran — “ began another question, provoking more laughter.

“As one famous host said,” Snow fired back with a wink, “I-R-A-K.”

As they say in show business, the house came down.

NBC-TV’s Kelly O’Donnell queried about the budding sex scandal now enveloping Washington, asking if the Administration has been notified of anyone one else who might be resigning relating to the DC madam.

“Not that I’m aware,” Snow deadpanned, using the signature “plausible deniability” line of official spokesmen.

To O’Donnell’s query about the President’s opinion of the exit of Deputy Secretary of State Randall Tobias amid rumors he purchased massages from the madam, Snow said “Well, he’s saddened by it, but it was the appropriate thing to do.”

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.