In the often surreal world of the televised press briefing, the media don’t stand a chance against a nice guy, and judging by his first performance, new White House press secretary Tony Snow may be mercilessly nice. Armed with a dapper suit and winning smile, Snow appeared as a confident yet supremely human spokesman for the Bush administration. Hey, he even provided some direct answers. His seemingly natural urbanity is bound to play better with voters than with the White House reporters, who often have to get ugly to extract info. But whether nice-guyism ultimately translates into political box office — like better credibility — remains to be seen.
Snow’s experience with GOP politics, TV cameras and live auds (in previous roles he worked for Fox News as well as George H.W. Bush) was abundantly on display the moment he stepped to the briefing podium, looked down at notes, then glanced up and, with mock surprise at the packed room, quipped, “I feel so loved!”
In a steady tenor signifying seriousness and purpose, he quickly recapped highlights of an earlier meeting between President Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Then came an even quicker summation of the main points of Bush’s immigration address. After less than two minutes, he courteously tossed to the press corps — often compared to a hungry animal — the large remaining bone of briefing time.
Reporters tried gnawing for details about the National Security Agency’s tracking of phone calls. Affable, low-key, Snow generally repeated only what Bush has already said — that no laws have been broken, yadda yadda.
Unlike his predecessor, Scott McClellan, who developed a rep as a brusque stonewaller, Snow, his hands casually holding the podium sides, generally engaged questioners with eye contact and a seeming desire to answer. Cordiality was the defining characteristic, even when rebuffing a premise disguised as a question (a common reportorial tactic).
“What’s interesting here, David, is I don’t leap to conclusions,” Snow said to NBC’s David Gregory, who posed such a question. The veteran TV personality-cum-press secretary then smoothly turned to another questioner.
Sam Donaldson, former White House correspondent for ABC News, once said the decision to televise the press briefing was the worst thing that could have happened: Savvy press secretaries knew that not answering in a nice way meant the press, forced to repeat questions increasingly harshly, had to look churlish and nasty in order to get at the facts.
Nobody got nasty on opening day, possibly because Snow seemed so genuinely decent — willing to admit he may be getting something wrong; maintaining almost a conversational tone throughout. In addition, the press may have cut him some slack because when the subject of his recent bout with cancer came up, he briefly lost composure, his voice catching and eyes appearing to water. “I feel that every day is a blessing,” he uttered softly.
Since the White House press briefing bears more than a passing resemblance to reality TV, “Tony Snow at the White House” may be as real as it gets. It is, at the outset, certainly likeable. Is it believable? Too early in the season to tell.