White House

The Tony Snow show closes at the White House

Tony Snow is no longer White House Press Secretary.
Tony Snow is no longer White House Press Secretary. Chuck Kennedy/MCT

WASHINGTON — It wasn't the longest-running performance — just 16 months and 136 appearances — but the Tony Snow show will probably go down as the most entertaining and effective in recent White House history.

Almost daily, Snow walked up to the White House press room podium with a glint in his eye, a quip on his tongue and a point to make as he eagerly sparred with reporters live on TV. He was President Bush's third and best press secretary. He also changed the way the role is likely to be played from now on.

"George W. Bush is going to miss him," said Ann Compton, a veteran ABC News White House reporter and president of the White House Correspondents Association. "No press secretary has taken the microphone and the podium and treated it like a talk show."

His hair thinner and his face slightly gaunt, Snow worked his last day at the White House on Friday. He had announced earlier that he was quitting, not because his colon cancer had returned, but because he and his family were strained financially under his $168,000 government salary. (As a former national TV commentator, he's used to much more.)

So what's he going to do?

"I got cancer," Snow answered matter-of-factly Friday during a farewell breakfast with reporters. "I want to fight cancer and spend time with my family." Snow and his wife, Jill Ellen Walker, have one son, two daughters, three dogs, a cat and three guinea pigs.

Snow, 52, came to the White House as a popular, conservative, camera-ready personality from Fox News. He'd cut his teeth in politics as a newspaper editorial writer and then as a speechwriter for the first President Bush.

As press secretary, he was everything that his predecessors Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan weren't — photogenic, inside the White House inner circle and nimble enough to speak authoritatively on topics ranging from the economy to Iraq.

With Bush's popularity sinking under the weight of the Iraq war, Snow was just the antidote the White House needed, according to Marlin Fitzwater, who was press secretary for Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush.

"I think he was an enormous benefit to the president," Fitzwater said. "He was strong where the president was weak. The president isn't a good talker — Tony is. The president isn't great in his public presentation — Tony was. Tony provided a very positive face for a White House under siege because of Iraq."

Fitzwater said Snow's tenure as press secretary may have been short, but it could change the way future press secretaries perform. Snow was less of a question-and-answer press secretary than his predecessors and more of an advocate for Bush.

"Tony never really made news," Fitzwater said. "He more made the case for policies. It's recreating the position."

Snow says he didn't set out to be a trailblazer. In fact, he wasn't sure he wanted the job when White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten first approached him.

"I said, 'No, I don't want to be a flack.' It struck me as something wholly foreign," Snow said Friday. "But Josh also is a master of psychology, and he said, 'I know you're making a lot of money, and you like it where you're working, and we're at 29 percent and got an election coming up, and we have these tough issues.

"'I can understand why a guy like you might not want to take a career risk and do that,'" Bolten continued, according to Snow. "So immediately, I snapped the bait and that was it."

He says he'll miss the daily give-and-take.

"This job is the most fun I have ever had, the most satisfying, fulfilling job," Snow said during his last White House briefing on Wednesday. "I love these briefings, and I'm really going to miss them."

Many of Snow's sparring partners in the White House press corps said they'll miss him, too.

"I told him (Snow) he could have picked a slower week for him to resign" Compton said, noting Washington's absorption with Iraq this week. "We didn't even have time to have a cake or something."

Snow says he'll continue to be an unabashed advocate for Bush, especially on immigration policy. However, he demurred when asked Friday whether he thought opposition to Bush's immigration plan by several Republican presidential candidates, their refusal to appear before major Hispanic organizations and their declining to appear in a debate on a Hispanic television network will hurt the GOP.

"Ask me that question in a week, or even tomorrow," Snow said with about eight hours left on his White House job. "As the president's press secretary, I'm not going to step into that one right now."

"So the answer is yes," a reporter asked.

"Yes!" a smiling Snow replied.