Adios, Tony and Welcome, Dana

Adios, Tony, and Godspeed:

It all was so familiar: there is no warning that anything newsworthy will happen at the regular briefing for White House reporters; the President comes out, the outgoing press secretary is hailed, and the new top spokesman for the President is introduced.

Yesterday (August 31st) marked the third time this ritual has taken place in the James Brady Briefing Room since George W. Bush became President—not to mention, the third time I missed the “changing of the guard” in the Bush years, my reason this time being the deployment of a personal day to make Labor Day weekend a four-day occurrence. And, to rub salt in my own wounds, I was actually two blocks from the White House when the unanticipated exit date of Press Secretary Tony Snow was announced, along with his replacement by Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino. (Sorry—it is not as though they send out announcements this sort of thing is coming!)

By now, the growing number of fans of the nationally-televised briefings by the 52-year-old Snow know the whole story: the first working journalist to serve as top spokesman for the President in three decades, the best-liked face of the Bush era after First Lady Laura Bush and Chief Justice John Roberts, has been battling cancer for months. In April of this year, onetime Fox TV commentator Snow took nearly a month off for intensive treatment, with updates on his condition (announced emotionally to us in the press room by an emotional Perino) and his triumphant reappearance and hero’s welcome at the White House Correspondents Association banquet both major media events.

For a time, Snow took Fridays off for further chemotherapy treatment, leaving the gaggle (early morning briefing) and afternoon briefing to Perino and fellow assistant Tony Fratto (who now moves up to the Number Two post in the Press Office). Later, he returned, as reporters (and fans of his through CSPAN) whispered how gaunt Snow looked, or how much of his hair was gone.

But how Tony Snow looked was not important. Right up to the announcement he was leaving September 14th, his resonant voice, sense of humor, and repository of facts and figures on any issues never failed him.

During an intense session July 3rd following the President’s commutation of former Vice Presidential chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s prison sentence, as the questions flew like shrapnel, American Urban Radio Network’s April Ryan repeatedly peppered Snow with questions as to when the Administration would apologize when a CIA operative such as Valerie Plame was exposed. “OK. I apologize. All done,” he replied without hesitation.

On another occasion, when TASS correspondent Andrei Sitov asked whether the President had an opinion on the deaths of Russian journalists recently, Snow actually replied to him in Russian—leaving the press room speechless and Sitov impressed. (During a walk following the exchange, Andrei translated for me: ‘He was saying he doesn’t know at all.’”).

That was Tony Snow—journalist, commentator, spokesman, and showman, all rolled into one. Perhaps some future President will find another seasoned veteran of the Fourth Estate willing to give up his trade for a while, possibly take a cut in pay (Snow reportedly took a 90% pay cut from his Fox duties and speaking fees to assume the $100,000-plus- a year press secretary’s job), and mount the podium so familiar to CSPAN viewers and take our questions.

But I have a feeling that he or she will have a very hard act to follow being compared to Tony Snow, who set the bar so high for future press secretaries that I have trouble believing it will be met. Indeed, one has to go back to Steve Early, onetime Pathe News newsreel reporter and press secretary to Franklin D. Roosevelt throughout his record tenure in the White House, to find an act like Tony Snow.

For now, like all of my colleagues, I wish him the best in private life and hope, with all my heart, that the prediction of my former colleague, Steve Holland of Reuters, about Tony Snow’s health comes true: “He’ll beat it.”

Welcome to the Podium, Dana

In being formally tapped as Press Secretary to the President Tony Snow steps down later this month, Dana Perino expressed doubts that she could fill Snow’s shoes because “I wear a Size 6.”

That was Dana in a minute – diminutive (the box that she stands on during White House briefings is known to us reporters as “the Perino Box”), deadpan, and delightful. In becoming only the second woman to serve as top spokesman to the President, the 36-year-old deputy press secretary brings with her a residue of good will among those who cover the President and are treated to twice-a-day briefings from the James Brady Briefing Room—us guys.

Since she succeeded Clare Buchan (who went on to be top aide to the secretary of commerce) in the Number Two spot at the Press Office two years ago, former U.S. House press secretary and TV reporter Perino has become a popular fixture with the public as well as the reporters. When Snow took leave for about a month earlier this year to undergo cancer treatments, Perino filled in, and quickly won fans among the millions who watch the press proceedings on CSPAN.

“Do you know Dana Perino?” was one of the first questions I had when I spoke to about fifty National Journalism Center interns here in Washington earlier this summer. The very fact that the questioner knew her name instead of saying “Tony’s substitute” or “the blonde lady” spoke volumes about Perino—those who watched her remembered her, and, for the most part, liked her.

Although it would be hard to find a master of soundbites on a par with Tony Snow, Perino’s own style of meshing short answers with humor (and never failing to say “I don’t know” or “I’ll get back to you” when she lacked a response) won the hearts of reporters and TV viewers. Playing the role of a teacher, she once greeted us on a Monday morning session with “Good morning, merry band”—which led veteran CBS correspondent Mark Knoller to growl: “We’re not merry!” After Perino announced the condolences of the President and Mrs. Bush over the passing of author David Halberstam, a reporter asked if the President had read Halberstam’s famed “The Best and the Brightest.” Without missing a beat, the spokeswoman replied: “He’s read our resumes.”

For my part, Perino never failed to greet me warmly and by name, whether we were at a social event or walking down the street after a daily briefing. When I took my father to the White House Christmas Party last December and the two of us were talking to CBS Radio correspondent Ivan Scott, Dana joined the group, introduced herself to my father, and greeted Ivan and me as “two of my favorite reporters”—and made us all believe she meant it.

Dana Perino has only about fifteen months on the job if she stays the rest of the Bush Administration. My guess is she will continue to shine, grow, and become a favorite to many who have so far just glimpsed her.