Snow Moves into White House Job

Melissa Block talks with NPR's Mara Liasson about the announcement that Tony Snow will be the next White House press secretary.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Tony Snow has been around Washington since the 1980s, and has become a familiar face the past 10 years on Fox News. He's certainly familiar to Washington journalists, including our own Mara Liasson, NPR's former White House correspondent and now national political correspondent. She's also a contributor on Fox, and joins us now. And Mara, you've sat alongside Tony Snow, seen him in action over a number of years. What's he like?

Ms. MARA LIASSON (National Political Correspondent, NPR): Well, I would say that he is relentlessly sunny and upbeat. He is really open. He's laidback. I would say he's almost Pollyanna-ish at times. I watched him go through this whole bout with colon cancer, and I would say that his demeanor was astounding. He was so upbeat about it, and so positive. You know, he was, oh, so open, that he even talked about the pros and cons of taking the White House Press Secretary's job on Fox before he decided to take it. I think the question now is, can he reign in that openness and candor when he's behind the podium. If he can't, maybe the White House is going to have to get ready to totally change its approach to reporters.

BLOCK: Yeah, you say sunny and upbeat. Not always sunny and upbeat about this administration. Would you consider him a commentator, a reporter, what?

Ms. LIASSON: Oh, I think that, in terms of his background, I think that he's an editorial writer in his past. He's been a speechwriter for the first President Bush. There are some editorial journalists who are reporters first, and just happen to write editorials. I would say he's the opposite. He's somebody who's been a rhetorical combatant, first and foremost. That's probably a good thing for the White House, in this job. You want someone who understands the needs of reporters but hopefully for the White House, you don't want him to identify with us, or them, too much. You don't want the press secretary to have the Stockholm Syndrome where he starts to be motivated by wanting to be liked by his tormentors in the press room, and you heard Tony Snow say today that he doesn't want to come to the White House to drink the Kool-Aid. I think the White House has to hope he drinks a little bit.

BLOCK: Mm hmm. Back in the 90s, Tony Snow was a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition, when Bill Clinton was president, Democrats controlled Congress. Let's listen to a little bit of a commentary he wrote in June of 1993. He's giving advice to President Clinton on how he can regain the momentum that he lost in his first difficult months in office:

Mr. SNOW: You also want to veto the independent counsel statutes, which lets Congress launch investigations into perceived misbehavior. Too often politicians use the law to paralyze administrations and extort compromises that presidents otherwise wouldn't make.

BLOCK: Famous last word, Mara?

Ms. LIASSON: Yeah, well, it's probably advice that Clinton should have taken, and that was very nonpartisan advice because it was correct.

BLOCK: Mara, there was some real tensions between Tony Snow and the White House. We heard some examples in David Greene's piece. Earlier this month, Tony Snow said in an interview that this White House has the worst communications operation of any White House, ever. That can't go over very well with the communications director there now.

Ms. LIASSON: No, but that comment really reflected what a lot of conservatives think of the entire communications operation at the White House, from Dan Bartlett to Scott McClellan. But, you know, there's a saying that a drowning man will grasp even at a razor, and I think when you're at 32 percent in the approval ratings, you'll try something new and you'll take on someone who even has criticized you even though, of course, he is a committed conservative. But I do think that hiring Tony is part and parcel of this new candor offensive, or charm offensive at the White House, where the president is holding more town meetings, more Q&As with reporters. And I guess the big question is, can Tony Snow learn to navigate in that very narrow channel between being loyal to your boss and helpful to the press, and that is the channel where the very best press secretaries have learned to operate. But this is something where Tony's incredibly open personality, and the White House's previous approach to the press, seem to be a little bit at odds.

BLOCK: In conflict. I mean, this is the White House that famously does not want much information shared.

Ms. LIASSON: No. And Tony is a very open, sharing person, and I think he's a complete professional and will probably, you know, get with the program. But maybe he'll also change the program a little. As he said, he's been promised this seat at the table. Not just somebody who gives out the White House line, but somebody who's actually involved in policy and strategic decisions.

BLOCK: Style-wise, Mara, would you expect to see a very different kind of briefing from Tony Snow than from Scott McClellan?

Ms. LIASSON: Well, yes. Personality-wise, yes. I mean, he's somebody who, he's not a staffer. He doesn't have a staffer's personality. He's open, he's funny, he's relaxed. I think he would want to have fun in the briefing room.

BLOCK: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks very much.

Ms. LIASSON: Thank you.

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