By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, April 26, 2006; 1:03 PM
There's no doubt that Tony Snow will be a breath of fresh air in the White House briefing room.
After almost three years during which members of the press corps banged their heads against the increasingly robotic, unresponsive and sometimes even unwitting Scott McClellan, there's someone new to talk to: A vivacious, outspoken, ultra-conservative pundit who apparently demanded a major role in the White House before agreeing to join the team.
Actually allowing an outsider like Snow into Bush's tightly-guarded inner circle, if that in fact turns out to be the case, would itself be a significant turnaround for the White House.
Giving the press routine access to a key player could potentially indicate a major change in the White House's relations with the press corps. Heck, simply engaging reporters and answering their questions could significantly improve those relations.
There has been a natural and growing antipathy in the press corps toward this White House -- not because of its politics, but because of its unprecedented nontransparency. After McClellan, who endlessly repeated talking points, gave no ground, offered no insight, provided no access, Snow is in for an inevitable honeymoon.
But it's still entirely possibly that, in the long run, Snow will simply represent a more charming, energetic, engaged and plugged-in way of continuing to tell the press nothing.
And it may simply be too late to turn things around for the Bush White House. It's not clear what one spokesman can do to restore credibility to an administration that has become so deeply mistrusted by the public. It's not clear what anyone but Bush can do to turn around his dismal approval ratings.
Furthermore, press corps are notoriously unrelenting when they smell blood. Increasingly, the dominant narrative about the Bush White House is of a wounded presidency that can't do anything right. That's a hard one to spin.
In his announcement of Snow's hiring this morning, Bush couldn't resist a little towel-snapping with the press corps.
"Tony already knows most of you, and he's agreed to take the job anyway," Bush said.
But at the same time, he and Snow were both attempting to extend an olive branch.
"I am confident he will help you do your job," Bush said. "He understands like I understand that the press is vital to our democracy."
Said Snow to reporters: "One of the things I want to do is just make it clear that I -- one of the reasons I took the job is not only because I believe in the President, because believe it or not, I want to work with you."
And yet, another thing that's not yet clear is whether Snow's appointment is a genuine attempt to re-engage with the mass media and the general public or just a better way to communicate with Bush's increasingly restive base.
Not long after the rumors that Snow was getting the job began circulating in Washington, so did the jokes about whether after working for Fox News for so many years Snow should get back pay from the White House. But beyond the snarky implication that Fox News has become the semi-official network of the Republican Party lies the reality that Fox has been far more successful than the White House communications office at packaging a vision in which Bush is a hero.
So is it possible that the hiring of Snow represents the embracing of the Fox News approach, which is to preach effectively to the converted and not worry about the rest?
The answers to all these questions, of course, will come in how Snow answers questions.
One litmus test: Will he continue the stonewalling about the role of key White House officials in leaking the identity of Valerie Plame and other classified information in an attempt to discredit Plame's husband?
Stay tuned.Today's Coverage
Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Fox News commentator Tony Snow agreed last night to become White House press secretary after top officials assured him that he would be not just a spokesman but an active participant in administration policy debates, people familiar with the discussions said.
"A former director of speechwriting for President Bush's father, Snow views himself as well positioned to ease the tensions between this White House and the press corps because he understands both politics and journalism, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the appointment had not been officially confirmed, although an announcement is expected today.
"Snow will become the first Washington pundit -- and an outspoken ideological voice at that -- to take over the pressroom lectern at a time when tensions between journalists and the administration have been running high, over issues ranging from the Iraq war to investigations involving leaks of classified information. . . .
"President Bush hates responding to the press, hates responding to political enemies -- he thinks it's beneath him,' Snow said on Fox News in March. 'He's got a stubborn streak.' What the president needed, he said, was 'a series of vigorous defenses' of his position."
Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Unlike the soft-spoken current press secretary, Scott McClellan, who announced his resignation last week, Mr. Snow is something of a showman, having earned his living in a world in which success hinges upon being provocative. . . .
"Mr. Snow is also a star in the conservative movement, some of whose members, including him, have been openly critical of the White House in recent months."
Mike Allen writes for Time that, according to a senior administration official, "Snow has talked to President Bush and was assured he will have 'a seat at the table and all the access he wants and needs, including walk-in privileges and all that.' . . .
"The official said Josh Bolten -- who has carried out a swift White House makeover since taking over as chief-of-staff on the afternoon of April 14 -- and Counselor Dan Bartlett view the selection of Snow as a key part of giving a new wind to a White House that has suffered repeated seatbacks. 'They need a big name to turn heads and send a message to the press that we care enough to put a big player here who cares enough about this job to give up a lot to take it,' the official said."
But will Snow change the job, or will the job change Snow?
Allen writes: "In a series of on-air appearances since news leaked that he was being considered for the job, Snow made it clear he was contemplating the job, and even hinted that he would take it. Asked about it one day on his show, he said with a laugh, 'I'm being deliberately coy. If nothing else, it's good practice.' "Snow's Paper Trail
Liberal Web sites like ThinkProgress.org are having a field day digging through Snow's paper trail. Snow has overwhelmingly been effusively supportive of Bush and the White House, but over time there have been some pithy exceptions.
The liberal Media Matters Web site proposes some questions for Snow, complete with citations:
"Do you still think President Bush is a 'wimp' and looks 'impotent' for not 'veto[ing] a single bill of any type'? . . .
"Could you elaborate on the 'leaden phrases' and the 'unbearably abstract and dull' portions of Bush's 'Social Security sales pitch' that made it 'stink'? . . .
"Would you still argue that the Republican Party is 'packed with cowards'? Or that the president's 'compassionate conservatism' is 'a slogan that exceeded skeptics' worst expectations'? Or that Bush 'lack[ed] not only conviction, but vision' when he signed McCain-Feingold? If not, what has caused you to change your mind, aside from having accepted this job?"
Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "Snow, in an Associated Press interview on Tuesday, said: 'It's public record. I've written some critical stuff. When you're a columnist, you're going to criticize and you're going to praise.'
"Unofficially, the White House tried to put the best face on Snow's criticism, suggesting it showed that the administration listens to different voices and noting that Snow's job called for him to be opinionated.
Jim Rutenberg writes for the New York Times Web site: "Mr. Bush, while praising Mr. Snow's long experience in print, radio and television, noted that 'he's not afraid of expressing his own opinions' and that 'he sometimes disagreed with me.' He said when he asked Mr. Snow about those critical remarks, he replied, 'You should have heard what I said about the other guy.'
"But he made it clear that Mr. Snow is no longer an independent agent. 'My job is to make decisions,' the president said. 'And his job is to help explain those decisions to the press corps and the American people.' "
By and large, Bush got the headlines he was going for yesterday. You generally had to plow deep into the stories to find out that what he said in his speech yesterday didn't amount to much. (See yesterday's column, Mostly Hot Air on Gas .)
"Bush Calls For Probe Of Rising Gas Prices," says the headline on the Jim VandeHei and Steven Mufson story in The Washington Post.
A few paragraphs in, however, they write that "according to industry experts and administration officials, Bush's efforts at best are likely to shave a few cents per gallon off the cost of gasoline."
They also note: "Privately, Republicans said price-fixing investigations are good politics but unlikely to result in any significant punishments or price changes this year. Bob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, said that it 'does smack of 'Round up the usual suspects.' "
And they explain how "the president wants to project the image of a leader doing everything he can to provide some relief -- without alienating corporate allies and economic conservatives who loathe government intervention in the market."
"Bush Takes Steps to Ease Increase in Energy Prices," says the headline on the David E. Sanger story in the New York Times.
"President moves to ease gas prices," says the headline on the Rick Klein story in the Boston Globe.
Over in California, where people take their gasoline prices deadly seriously, the newspapers were not nearly so obliging.
"Bush's Proposals Viewed as a Drop in the Oil Bucket," says the headline on the Peter Wallsten and Richard Simon story in the Los Angeles Times.
"Bush's gas plan seen as too little, too late," says the headline on Edward Epstein 's story in the San Francisco Chronicle. His lead: "President Bush tried to offer short-term relief Tuesday to Americans suffering from gasoline price sticker shock, but his efforts aren't expected to have a significant effect.
"Under pressure not just from motorists but also from fellow Republicans increasingly edgy about their election prospects in November, Bush also proposed longer-term action that he said could revolutionize America's motoring life. But most of the ideas he proposed already have been bottled up in Congress, where energy legislation provokes bitter battles."
In its quote of the day, taken from the president's speech, the New York Times did however sum up its small-bore nature: "Every little bit helps."Not a Real Probe
The "probe" Bush has called for is not, in fact, a probe. Rather, Bush has asked the Energy and Justice departments to generally make sure that some arguably overbroad rules vaguely related to price-gouging are being followed.
Here's Bush's chief economic adviser, Allan Hubbard , trying to explain to the press yesterday.
"Q [A]s far as I can tell, there isn't actually a per se prohibition on price gouging, or a definition? What is the administration's definition of price gouging? And is there a need for some tighter restrictions on what companies can do as far as withholding or diverting supplies from particular markets?
"DIRECTOR HUBBARD: Well, the important thing is that we have very good anti-trust laws, and it's very important that those laws are adhered to. Those laws prevent collusion -- you know, companies getting together to regulate supply, to regulate pricing. Those laws prevent monopolistic pricing. If a company has monopolistic power, using that power to achieve monopolistic pricing. . . .
"Q Do you think that there is collusion or some sort of price fixing going on at some level?
"DIRECTOR HUBBARD: That's why they're going to be doing their investigation.
"Q Because the administration thinks there is?
"DIRECTOR HUBBARD: No, I didn't say that."About Face
Bush's decision to temporarily stop filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would appear to fly in the face of his comments in May 2004, when Democrats were proposing the idea.
Here is what Bush said back then :
"Q Sir, Senator Kerry has suggested halting shipments to the emergency oil reserves. Your energy bill is a long-term strategy. What are some short-term steps that can be taken?
"THE PRESIDENT: If people had acted on my energy bill when I submitted it three years ago, we would be in a much better situation today.
"Secondly, we will not play politics with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. That Petroleum Reserve is in place in case of major disruptions of energy supplies to the United States. The idea of emptying the Strategic Petroleum Reserve plays -- would put America in a dangerous position in the war on terror. We're at war. We face a tough and determined enemy on all fronts. And we must not put ourselves in a worse position in this war. And playing politics with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would do just that."
A few months later, McClellan returned to the same theme:
"Q Let me go back to the Reserve. Why don't you just stop filling it -- I mean, not using it, but just stop filling it? Don't you think that would send to the market a --
"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, because of how important it is to our national security. We still are dependent on foreign sources of energy. And that helps protect us and strengthen our national security, in the event that there is a severe disruption in supply. And I think people have pointed out that filling it really has a negligible impact, just like tapping it would -- in the past has had a negligible impact.
"Q In terms of signal, don't you think it would send to the market the right signal, saying we just stop filling it for the time being and --
"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, remember -- remember, we're a nation at war. And tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve solely for political purposes to lower prices would reduce our protection and weaken -- and weaken us while we're at war.
"Q I'm not saying, tapping, I'm saying, stop filling it.
"MR. McCLELLAN: No, I understand. But that's why I said, the importance of doing so helps strengthen us and strengthen our national security in the event that there is a severe disruption."First Veto?
John Schwartz and Edmund L. Andrews write in the New York Times: "President Bush asked Congress yesterday for $2.2 billion in new spending to rebuild the hurricane protection system for the New Orleans area, even as he threatened to veto the overall spending bill if Congress did not remove a cornucopia of non-emergency items. . . .
"With many grassroots conservatives up in arms over what they consider excessive growth in government spending under Mr. Bush, and with new scrutiny being applied to the pet projects lawmakers routinely insert into spending bills, the veto threat suggested that Mr. Bush wanted to strike a more assertive posture on the issue. He has issued only 27 veto threats since he took office in 2001 and has not actually vetoed a single measure, even though Congress has passed many bills that exceeded his budget requests."Immigration Watch
Dave Montgomery writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "President Bush delivered a breakthrough Tuesday in on-again, off-again efforts to push comprehensive immigration legislation through Congress this year, Senate leaders said following a White House meeting with the president.
"Bush met with a bipartisan group of more than a dozen senators for an hour and went further than ever before in embracing the core ingredients of a sweeping bill that would grant citizenship to millions of illegal workers, participants said.
"With Bush's stance, the senators expressed confidence that the compromise will pass the Senate by the end of May. Hard work lies ahead after that, however, in reconciling the Senate version with a tough border-enforcement-only bill passed in December by the House of Representatives. . . .
"An aide to one participant in the meeting said Bush told the senators that he could go no further publicly than his veiled support for the Senate bill because to do so would anger his Republican allies in the House. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't permitted to reveal details of the White House discussions."Bush vs. Sheep?
Benjamin Spillman writes in the Palm Springs Desert Sun about Bush's Sunday morning bike ride along the Clara Burgess Trail.
"Jim Foote, acting manager of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, said the Clara Burgess trail is also among those monument managers ask people to avoid part of the year to prevent disrupting endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep.
"The trail is one of about 10 in the monument under a 'voluntary avoidance' program. People are asked to stay off the Clara Burgess trail from Jan. 1 to June 30 during the sheep lambing season, he said."Spinning the Twins
Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "Glenn Makl will be back on the job tomorrow, teaching his once-a-week 6:15 a.m. spinning class at D.C.'s swank Sports Club/LA. Whether two of his famous students will be there -- well, that's another question.
"The fitness instructor put his foot in his mouth last Thursday when he shared a couple of President Bush's better-known malapropisms with his class -- having no idea that First Twins Jenna and Barbara were among the 20 or so students on stationary bikes in the room.
"The incident, first reported in Roll Call , rattled the sisters enough that Jenna's boyfriend, Henry Hager , called the West End spa to complain."Exclusive Fitzgerald Interview! Must Credit The Owl!
Joseph Santo , a senior at Regis High School on the Upper East Side of New York, scores an exclusive interview with noted Regis alum Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame case.
"Fitzgerald believes that 'most people only get a window view of my personality since I am dealing with the most serious of offenses.' Often, he will 'spend time with friends, go hiking, and do very ordinary things,' and is also 'a long time Seinfeld fan.' But, 'when I speak as a prosecutor, I am there for a somber occasion. My audience certainly is not interested in what I did that weekend.'
Sadly, Fitzgerald remained mum on the Plame case: "I cannot comment on that even for The Owl while this case is still pending trial, he told Santo.This Just In
The Associated Press is reporting: "Special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald early Wednesday went before a federal grand jury looking into the leak of the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame.
CNN and Fox News are reporting that that Karl Rove will be a witness. More tomorrow.