By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 17, 2006; 1:24 PM
A White House press corps smitten with the telegenic, emotional nature of Tony Snow's first formal briefing yesterday -- he laughed! he cried! -- largely neglected to mention a few salient aspects of his performance.
Like, for instance: His inconsistent responses; his sloppiness with certain facts; and his embarrassing verbal gaffe.
Repeatedly questioned about the National Security Agency's collection of data on domestic telephone calls, Snow acknowledged the existence of the program enough to defend it in general terms -- but when it came to answering specific questions, he refused to admit it existed.
He misreported poll numbers when it served his purposes -- then refused to answer questions about poll numbers he didn't like.
He got away almost scot-free using a term -- "tar baby" -- that many consider racist.
Plus, he brusquely rebuffed an inquiry about Karl Rove -- along with several other legitimate questions -- without even the pretense of explaining why.
Yes, Snow's congeniality is a pleasant change from Scott McClellan's robotic droning. But in terms of content, Snow was hardly an improvement.
Consider, as Exhibit A, Snow's exchanges related to the NSA's reported domestic telephone calls database.
Shortly before Snow took to the podium, Bush briefly appeared in public with Australian Prime Minister John Howard and made thinly veiled comments about the newly disclosed program.
From the transcript :
"Q Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. President, you've said that the government is not trolling through the lives of innocent Americans, but why shouldn't ordinary people feel that their privacy is invaded by the NSA compiling a list of their telephone calls?
"PRESIDENT BUSH: What I have told the American people is, we'll protect them against an al Qaeda attack, and we'll do so within the law. . . .
"We've also been clear about the fact that we do not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval, and that this government will continue to guard the privacy of the American people. But if al Qaeda is calling into the United States, we want to know, and we want to know why.
"For the Australian press friends here . . . the program he's asking about is one that has been fully briefed to members of the United States Congress, in both political parties. They are very aware of what is taking place. The American people expect their government to protect them, within the laws of this country, and I'm going to continue to do just that."
While not exactly forthcoming, it was an obvious acknowledgment that the "program he's asking about" exists.
But right out of the gates at his press briefing , Snow misrepresented what the president said.
"Q In his news conference with John Howard, was the President giving kind of a back-handed confirmation of the stories that the NSA is compiling telephone --
"MR. SNOW: No, he wasn't. If you go back and listen to the answer he gave you, he was talking about foreign-to-domestic calls. The allegations in the USA Today piece , which we'll neither confirm or deny, are of a different nature. So, no, he was not giving a back-handed confirmation."
If in fact you go back to look at that transcript , there was no mention of foreign-to-domestic calls. Bush did say "if al Qaeda is calling into the United States, we want to know, and we want to know why," but then he clearly referred again to the original question, which was about the domestic database.
At his briefing, Snow proceeded to engage in precisely the same sort of back-handed discourse, actually referring to aspects of the USA Today story when it served his purposes -- but then refusing to answer any questions, when it didn't.
Here's part of his exchange with Hearst columnist Helen Thomas:
Snow: "[Y]ou're mentioning a USA Today story about which this administration has no comment. But I would direct you back to the USA Today story itself, and if you analyze what that story said, what did it say? It said there is no wiretapping of individual calls, there is no personal information that is being relayed. There is no name, there is no address, there is no consequence of the calls, there's no description of who the party on the other end is.
"Q Privacy was breached by turning over their phone numbers.
"MR. SNOW: Well, again, you are jumping to conclusions about a program, the existence of which we will neither confirm, nor deny."
When Snow turned away from Thomas to Martha Raddatz of ABC News, she followed up:
"Q You might repeat the same thing, but why not declassify this? I mean, the President did talk about the surveillance program a day after The New York Times broke that story. This would seem to affect far more people, and it did sound like the President was confirming that story today. He was answering Terry's question --
"MR. SNOW: Well, if you go back -- if you go back and you look through what he said, there was a reference to foreign-to-domestic calls. I am not going to stand up here and presume to declassify any kind of program. That is a decision the President has to make. I can't confirm or deny it. The President was not confirming or denying."
Then Snow continued: "Again, I would take you back to the USA Today story, simply to give you a little context. Look at the poll that appeared the following day. While there was -- part of it said 51 percent of the American people opposed, if you look at when people said, if there is a roster of phone numbers, do you feel comfortable that -- I'm paraphrasing and I apologize -- but something like 64 percent of the polling was not troubled by it. Having said that, I don't want to hug the tar baby of trying to comment on the program -- the alleged program -- the existence of which I can neither confirm nor deny.
"Q But there are polls that show Americans are very concerned about it.
"MR. SNOW: The President -- you cannot run a security -- you cannot base national security on poll numbers. As the President of the United States you have to make your own judgments about what is in the nation's best interest.
"Q You just brought it up, though.
"MR. SNOW: Well, I did bring it up because what you were talking about is how people were concerned about privacy issues, and I tried to relate to you what happened. It was interesting, when people were given the specifics in that story, they did not seem to be terribly troubled."
Let's unpack that. First of all, not only was Snow citing poll results when it suited him, then getting righteously indignant when a reporter cited poll results that didn't, but he didn't have his facts straight.
There was indeed a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Friday and Saturday that found that 51 percent of Americans disapproved of the program.
But the "something like 64 percent" figure would appear to be taken from a Washington Post/ABC News Poll conducted a day earlier, just as the NSA story was starting to emerge. One of the Post/ABC questions was: "If you found out that the NSA had a record of phone numbers that you yourself have called, would that bother you, or not?" And 66 percent of those polled said it would not bother them.
But The Post poll also found that 63 percent found the NSA program acceptable -- a far greater percentage than the USA Today poll. The discrepancies between the two polls has been a subject of great debate in the blogosphere -- see for instance the Mystery Pollster . Among other things, it seems likely that those polled by The Post didn't know nearly as much about the program as those polled a day later. Furthermore, the Post poll questions more explicitly created a conflict between national security and privacy.
[UPDATE, 6:15 p.m.: Stephen Spruiell of National Review's Media Blog points out that Snow might in fact have been referring to the following USA Today question: "If you knew that the federal government had your telephone records, how concerned would you be -- very concerned, somewhat concerned, not too concerned, or not concerned at all?" A total of 64 percent of respondents said either "not too concerned" or "not concerned at all."]
As part of his response to Raddatz, Snow used the phrase "I don't want to hug the tar baby of trying to comment on the program."
A reporter later asked him what he meant by that, and Snow mumbled: "Well, when we hug the tar baby -- we could trace that back to American lore."
Snow's use of the term was not entirely ignored by the press, but it was certainly underplayed.
The Crooks and Liars blog helpfully links to a Random House essay on the origin of the phrase, which "achieved currency in the United States in written form in one of Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories, a collection of stories based on African-American folklore, narrated by the fictional Uncle Remus, a former slave. In the story 'Tar-Baby,' the character Brer Fox makes a doll out of tar, which he places by the road to entrap his enemy Brer Rabbit. Brer Rabbit talks to the doll, and when it doesn't answer, he hits it, and gets stuck in the tar. The more he struggles with it, the more he is entangled in it.
"This story has led to the figurative use of tar baby in the sense 'an inextricable problem or situation', sometimes with the nuance 'something used to entrap a person'."
But, Random House notes: "The expression tar baby is also used occasionally as a derogatory term for black people (in the U.S. it refers to African-Americans; in New Zealand it refers to Maoris), or among blacks as a term for a particularly dark-skinned person. As a result, some people suggest avoiding the use of the term in any context."More of the Same on the Morning Shows
Snow made a round of the morning shows today, and once again misrepresented poll numbers. He seems to have a particular weakness there.
Here's Snow talking to NBC's Katie Couric this morning.
Couric: "Clearly there's a great deal of anxiety among many of the president's supporters. . . . His poll numbers have been consistently trending downwards. How beleaguered is this White House feeling?"
Snow: "Not particularly, Katie, as a matter of fact. You mentioned bad poll numbers, it often happens at about this time in the second term. The real question is, is the president going to lead on the issues that people care about?"
Actually, the real question is: On what is Snow basing his assessment of second terms? As this chart from the Professor Pollkatz blog shows, fellow two-term presidents Clinton and Reagan were doing much better than Bush at this point in their presidencies. Bush's numbers approach only those of President Nixon, who was three months away from resigning at this point in his presidency. This dated Wall Street Journal chart shows more of the same.
Snow continued: "Spirits are pretty high. When you've got a White House that is being activist, people tend to rally around not only the president, but around the causes he espouses."
Couric: "What is the strategy to turn things around by November?"
Snow: "You don't look at a turn-it-around strategy. Again, good policy is always good politics. . . . If you want to take a look at the polls, I think it was a USA Today poll, and 79 percent of the American public liking the plan he laid out the other night."
Snow was apparently referring to a CNN insta-poll conducted Monday night, and not of the general public -- but of people who had earlier indicated that they planned to watch the speech and were willing to be re-interviewed.
Overall, 79 percent of those speech watchers said they had a "very positive" or "somewhat positive" reaction to his plan, while only 18 percent had a "negative" view.
But that sample is widely understood to be skewed, as indicated by the results of similar polls after Bush's previous major speeches. In fact, 79 percent was actually low by the standards of the insta-polls taken after his prior major speeches.
See CNN's complete results , including trend data.
Snow was also on the CBS Early Show with Julie Chen.
Chen: "Right now what's dominating the headlines is reports that allegedly U.S. phone companies gave customer phone records over to the NSA. What do you know about this program?"
Snow: "Well, actually, I don't know a whole lot about it. I've not been read into it. But furthermore, you're assuming that a program exists and we neither confirm nor deny it."
Read that one over again. He hasn't been briefed on it -- and it doesn't necessarily exist.
Chen: "Were there warrants?"
Snow: "Again, Julie, you can't talk about a program that we neither confirm nor deny the existence of."The Coverage
Much of the coverage of Snow's first briefing focused on his choking up when asked about his experience with cancer.
Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "It was nearing the end of the new presidential spokesman's lively question-and-answer period before the cameras, and he was asked why he wears one of the popular yellow "LIVESTRONG" bracelets that raise money for cancer through the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
"Snow, who had his colon removed last year and underwent six months of chemotherapy after being diagnosed with colon cancer, struggled with his response for 45 seconds. . . .
" 'It's my Ed Muskie moment,' the 50-year-old Ohio native joked about his response."
But of course, far from ending his career -- Muskie's tears sank his Democratic candidacy for president in 1972 -- Snow's show of humanity endeared him to reporters who had grown tired of McClellan's delivery.
The fact that Snow didn't tell them anything wasn't entirely lost on them, however.
Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "It began as the Tony Snow show. It turned out more like 'Oprah.' . . .
"Reporters leaving the 40-minute session would discover that, like his predecessors, Snow had imparted no useful information to them. But he had done it in a far more entertaining manner."
Caroline Daniel writes in the Financial Times: "Although more open in admitting the limits of his knowledge, Mr Snow was as tight-lipped as his predecessor on some questions.
"On the investigation into the leaking of a CIA agent's name, and the fate of White House officials, he responded: 'I am not going to comment at all on Karl Rove and his private communications with the president.'"
Bill Plante writes on the CBSNews Web site: "Would he tell us anything new? Would it at least be presented differently? How would he handle himself at the lectern?
"The answers: No, yes and confidently."
Michael Scherer writes in Salon: "Tony Snow, the president's new press secretary, wants you to know that he has feelings, he hurts, and he needs a coffee cup to get through his day. He is, in other words, a human being, and that makes him a dramatic departure from his predecessor, Scott McClellan, the doughy master of equivocation and non sequitur who behaved most days like a misfiring automaton, barely betraying any light behind his eyes. . . .
"By the end of the briefing, 40 minutes later, the reviews were raves. Snow had apparently passed his initiation rite. Members of the press corps were thankful for warm blood. As they packed up their notebooks, they were visibly giddy, offering approbations like, 'That was A-1' and 'It's going to be fun.' Even Helen Thomas, the briefing room's matron saint and the press secretary's principle scourge, admitted to being moved by the new guy. 'I thought he had a lot of charm,' she was overheard saying loudly. 'But he didn't answer the questions.' "
Howard Kurtz , writing on washingtonpost.com, was quite taken with Snow, and not just because of his moving cancer story: "Snow was actually . . . interesting to listen to. He seemed to be engaging the press is a conversation, rather than spending his time in a defensive crouch. Yes, he split plenty of hairs in trying to discuss the domestic eavesdropping program without confirming or denying its existence, which seems a bit silly at this stage. He occasionally seemed to wander into rhetorical trouble.
"But he didn't insult the press by saying, in effect, no matter what questions you ask, I'm going to repeat the same boilerplate phrases."
Nope, he found new ways to insult the press.About the Tar Baby
Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times about the "tar baby" reference -- but as a metaphor, rather than an outrage.
"Tony Snow said he didn't want to 'hug the tar baby,' and then he did just that by using the expression in his first televised White House press briefing yesterday.
"The tar-covered doll that Br'er Fox used to ensnare Br'er Rabbit in an 1881 Uncle Remus story is used as a metaphor for a sticky situation, but for some it also carries vague racist connotations -- it has been used as a derogatory term for a black. In a society where a District of Columbia councilman can be accused of racism simply by using the word 'niggardly,' most politicians and TV commentators prefer to avoid tar baby references. . . .
"It was a minor snag in an otherwise smooth, polished performance, but it was nevertheless a reminder of just how sticky the job of White House press secretary can be."
Brit Hume writes on FoxNews.com with outrage -- but, predictably, a different kind of outrage: "No sooner had Tony Snow finished his first briefing as the president's press secretary than Democratic activist and CNN contributor Donna Brazile was on the phone to April Ryan, who covers the White House for the Urban Radio Network.
"In declining to discuss the NSA's alleged collection of domestic phone records, Snow had said he wouldn't 'hug the tar baby' of commenting on a program the White House won't confirm or deny. Brazile wanted it known that several people called her to complain about that reference to an American folk story about a trap that's impossible to get out of -- which has also been used as a racial slur. Ryan has obligingly filed a story about it."A Retreat -- Or a Ploy?
Charles Babington and Dafna Linzer write in The Washington Post: "The White House, facing a potentially tough Senate grilling of its choice to head the CIA, agreed yesterday to expand the number of lawmakers who will receive classified briefings on the administration's anti-terrorism efforts that include warrantless wiretaps of domestic phone calls and e-mails."
Greg Miller and Joseph Menn write in the Los Angeles Times: "In making the concession, the Bush administration is seeking to improve the prospects of the president's nominee to be the next CIA director, Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, by preempting attacks from lawmakers angry that they have been kept in the dark on domestic spying activities. . . .
"Republican lawmakers cited ancillary benefits to the expanded briefings. The White House had previously expressed concerns that details of the program might leak out if more lawmakers were briefed on it. But senior congressional aides said that because of the rules of handling classified information, members who are briefed will likely have to be more circumspect in their public discussions of it, blunting their ability to criticize it. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity, citing a lack of authority to address the press.
" 'When they know about it, they are obligated to be quiet,' said one senior Republican Senate aide."Poll Watch
Richard Morin and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "Bush's job approval rating now stands at 33 percent, down five percentage points in barely a month and a new low in Post-ABC polls. . . .
"The president's current decline has been particularly steep among Republicans, who until last month had generally remained loyal while independents and Democrats grew increasingly critical. According to the survey, Bush's disapproval rating among Republicans has nearly doubled, from 16 percent to 30 percent, in the past month while his approval rating dipped below 70 percent for the first time. Nearly nine in 10 Democrats and seven in 10 independents currently do not like the job Bush is doing as president.
"Public dissatisfaction with Bush has grown in lockstep with opposition to the conflict in Iraq."
Here's the poll data . See in particular what respondents said were their main reasons for approving or disapproving of Bush.