WASHINGTON—He laughed, he cried, he pontificated and he got fellow cancer survivor Lance Armstrong's name wrong.
The Tony Snow show officially opened in the cramped confines of the White House briefing room Tuesday, with the former Fox news pundit making his public debut as President Bush's new press secretary, replacing Scott McClellan.
Snow's first briefing was boffo box office: Cable TV networks covered it live, teasing it as a major news event. Reporters frustrated after two years of briefings by the likable but rarely informative McClellan packed the room to take the measure of a more nimble performer.
"I think he's smoother," said Helen Thomas, a Hearst Newspapers columnist who has covered every president since John F. Kennedy. "He gives the impression of great sincerity, but at the same time he's giving you the same answers."
Snow fielded 84 questions in his 40-minute briefing, and it became unexpectedly emotional when a reporter asked why he was wearing a yellow cancer-awareness bracelet.
"I had cancer last year," he replied.
Snow had colon cancer. His mother died of the disease when he was 17. "Just having gone through this last year ... was the best thing that happened to me," he said.
Then he paused, choking back tears.
"It's my Muskie moment," he said, referring to the 1972 incident when Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, appeared to break into tears of frustration at political criticism of his wife. The episode helped derail Muskie's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
After collecting himself, Snow paid tribute to modern medical science for curing him. He said a doctor told him he didn't have to worry any more about cancer, "just heartburn" from talking to the White House press corps every day, which got a laugh. "I feel every day is a blessing," Snow said.
But he had reporters scratching their heads when he said, "I actually had a chance to talk to Lance Anderson about this ..." He corrected himself moments later: "I think I called Lance Armstrong `Lance Anderson,''' he said, referring to the famous bicycle racer. "So let me apologize to him for that."
Snow caught himself again after he guaranteed that immigration legislation would go to a House-Senate conference committee. The House of Representatives has passed a version of the measure, but the Senate is still working on its quite different bill.
"OK, you know what? I was being presumptuous," he acknowledged. "I think there's a good chance, if you talk to people on the Hill ... but you're absolutely right, I overstepped and should not be making predictions about what the Senate will do."
Those stumbles aside, Snow's first public outing went more smoothly than his unofficial debut last Friday, when White House officials moved his morning "gaggle"—a daily off-camera news briefing—from 9 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Snow started that session at 9:18 a.m. in his office rather than the roomier briefing theater, much to the consternation of reporters who were stuck out in the hall because they couldn't all fit in.
"I had this wonderful idea that this would be nice and collegial and relaxed, but obviously at this point it's just a mess," Snow said Friday.
Tuesday's briefing was anything but messy, according to Bill Plante, who has been covering the White House for CBS for 26 years.
"Tony Snow was stoked, smiling and willing to say there were some things he didn't know," Plante said. "He brought a broadcaster's self-assurance to the lectern."
Asked to rate his first briefing, Snow said: "I love it. This is great. Thank you."
"Let's see how long the love lasts!" Plante responded on CBS News' Web page.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tony Snow
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