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The Spokesman Made for Cable

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 2, 2007; 1:36 PM

Tony Snow is increasingly being embraced as a rock star in Republican circles -- but his responsibilities as White House press secretary are suffering accordingly.

Snow's glib, confrontational approach to reporters -- rarely giving straight answers to even the simplest and most legitimate questions -- has made him a hero to Bush partisans and a darling of the right-wing media.

But it's becoming increasingly clear that the fears that some journalists had when Snow first came to the job from Fox News last May have been realized.

Not surprisingly, considering his background, Snow seems to treat his encounters with the press more like a cable show than as an opportunity to provide the public with a fuller picture of what's going on inside the White House. His prime goal seems to be to "win the half hour" -- which generally entails out-talking and mocking your opponent, rather than mustering facts and actually staking out a persuasive position.

In a departure from past practice, Snow last year became the first White House press secretary to actively campaign during an election, headlining a slew of fundraisers across the country.

Since then, he has kept on going, speaking at Republican fundraisers in Pennsylvania and North Carolina just last week. (At the Pennsylvania event, he was introduced as a possible future Senate candidate.) And Snow gave a rousing exhortation yesterday to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

All modern White House press secretaries can reasonably be expected to spend a lot of their time trying to spin the facts to make their boss look good. But in his fervor to make his case, Snow sometimes says things that are simply not true.

In the latest example, Max Blumenthal writes for Raw Story that at his speech yesterday to CPAC, Snow insisted: "We didn't create the war in Iraq. We didn't create the war on terror."

One could certainly argue that the 9/11 terrorist attacks demanded an aggressive response and that President Bush's campaign against terror was not a matter of choice. But the war on Iraq was a war of choice if there ever was one. The Iraqis didn't start it.

To say the White House didn't create that war may be a thrilling rhetorical flourish, but it is also a blatant rewriting of history.

I've been chronicling Snow's more egregious behavior in my column.

Among the recent examples: Snow's assertion in a Feb. 6 briefing that "by some calculations" Bush's tax cuts "have paid for themselves and then some." Bush himself has found all sorts of artful ways to imply that his tax cuts have paid for themselves, without exactly saying as much -- because it's simply not true, as even Bush's economic advisers admit. But Snow has no such scruples. (See the "Tax Cuts Don't Pay for Themselves" section of my Feb. 7 column.)

In my Feb. 8 column, (see the section "Snow Makes More Stuff Up") I related Snow's eye-popping claim, in his Feb. 7 briefing, that nuclear development is now championed by Greenpeace -- the environmental organization that, as its Web site makes clear, "has always fought - and will continue to fight - vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity. The only solution is to halt the expansion of all nuclear power, and for the shutdown of existing plants."

Like most of Snow's flights of fancy, those two passed almost without a trace. No further coverage, certainly no retraction -- until last week, at least, when Julie Mason of the Houston Chronicle called attention to that Greenpeace line: "As whoppers go, that was a good one," she wrote.

Then she put it all in context: "White House reporters don't expect much from Snow, which goes part of the way toward explaining why his claim about Greenpeace went largely unremarked.

"It's been less than a year since Snow started the job amid a clamor of hype -- including claims by Snow and others at the White House that he would be in the room for the heavy policy stuff, with a voice and a role to play.

"The former Fox News personality quickly established himself as a glib and energetic adversary for the media, sometimes short on information but strong with a comeback. He learned everyone's name and all their peccadillos.

"These days, whatever honeymoon he had has largely worn off. . . .

"Reporters complain that Snow is frequently unprepared and that he personalizes encounters -- Snow recently told CNN's Ed Henry to 'calm down' during an exchange over White House claims the Iranian government was behind explosives seized in Iraq.

"Most damning, by Washington standards, many reporters covering the White House don't believe Snow has the inner-circle role and the access he was promised."

Snow enjoyed a long period during which the press gave him positive remarks.

As William Powers noted critically in the National Journal in October (subscription required), Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post and Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times both wrote puff pieces about how Snow had tamed the media within one week alone.

But one of the first signs that Snow's honeymoon might be coming to an end came in December, when Dana Milbank wrote a column for The Washington Post emphasizing another galling habit of Snow's. It's the rhetorical flip side of his penchant for making stuff up: He denies he knows anything at all.

"When Snow took over as White House press secretary earlier this year, reporters found it refreshing that he was willing to admit when he didn't know something," Milbank wrote.

"This has become rather less refreshing as Snow, while claiming access to Bush's sanctum sanctorum, continues to use the phrase -- more than 400 times so far in televised briefings and interviews. Sometimes, it seems more of a tic than a response; usually, it's a brushoff. . . .

"Unsurprisingly, this method has done some damage to briefer-questioner relations. It doesn't help that Snow, though admired for his quick wit, has been lobbing names at his inquisitors. After labeling as 'partisan' a question from NBC's David Gregory last week, Snow accused CBS's Jim Axelrod yesterday of asking a 'loaded' question; the two men exchanged unpleasant looks. Snow further branded a question by Fox's Bret Baier as 'cynical' and one from [CNN's Elaine] Quijano as 'facile.'"

From his very first formal briefing, on May 16, Snow has often put his foot in it. (At that one, he said his reaction to the 2,500th American death in Iraq was that "it's a number" and he used a phrase -- "tar baby" -- that some consider racist.)

And he is frequently combative. As I described in my June 16 column, Snow often demands that reporters define the terms that he himself has just used.

Sometimes, he picks fights over obvious facts. Case in point, at Wednesday's press briefing, he was asked about testimony from Bush's new spy chief that Osama bin Laden is alive in Pakistan and reestablishing training camps. Snow responded by suggesting that bin Laden might not really be the leader of al Qaeda.

While the press corps rarely complains about the press secretary, Snow is due to encounter protesters tonight when he speaks at the Bush Library on the Texas A&M campus on " The Press and the Presidency."

A spokesman for the groups planning the protest, David McWhirter, said in a statement: "Tony Snow on a daily basis provides misinformation and 'spin' that have contributed significantly to the Bush administration's pursuit of the misguided, illegal and immoral war in Iraq."

Bush and Katrina

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush on Thursday acknowledged the deep frustration of Hurricane Katrina victims and said the federal government shares the blame for the slow recovery of the Gulf Coast.

"He gave residents of the battered region a message: 'The federal government still knows you exist.'"

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Stung by criticism that he and his administration had neglected the hurricane-tattered Gulf Coast, President Bush on Thursday made his first visit to the region in six months, proclaiming, 'This is a hopeful day.'

"Bush, standing in a muddy lot near new homes in Long Beach, Miss., said: 'Part of the reason I've come down is to tell people here in the Gulf Coast that we still think about them in Washington. . . . Times are changing for the better, and people's lives are improving. And there is hope.'"

Another really helpful blast of reassurance from the president, in his remarks at a cafe in New Orleans: "Sometimes it's hard to see progress when you're living close to the scene."

As Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "A little more than two weeks after Katrina made its landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, Bush stood in historic Jackson Square and promised to rebuild this shattered city and the rest of the Gulf Coast with 'one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.' . . .

"However, only 45 percent of the pre-Katrina population of New Orleans has returned to the city, which, while slowly improving, remains a shadow of its former self: only 40 percent of the food establishments, 30 percent of the child care centers and 17 percent of the buses are back in business, according to a January report by the Brookings Institution."

And Bill Walsh writes for the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "Congressional Democrats blasted President Bush on Thursday for refusing during a Gulf Coast trip to let Louisiana off the hook for paying 10 percent of the mounting hurricane recovery tab."

Julie Mason blogs for the Houston Chronicle: "One thing Bush likes to do in the Gulf Coast is hand out American flags to families rebuilding their houses. Long before he shows up, Bush's advance team scouts the non-hostile property owners in a neighborhood, and later, the president drops by and gives the family a flag. The White House thinks this makes for good pictures -- and maybe it did, a month after the storm. But a year and half later, with the region still a mess and so many people displaced, it seems a little tone-deaf to be handing out flags -- politically, it does invite comparisons to what Bush isn't doing in the region."

Fundraising Watch

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times that the more divisive Bush becomes, the better he is at fundraising.

"Bush helped raise $10.4 million for the Republican Governors Assn. earlier this week, and he will be the star attraction at a fundraising dinner tonight in Louisville, Ky., for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. It is expected to bring in more than $2 million. . . .

"Bush's fundraising abilities underscore a key fact of modern political life, according to several Republican consultants and a major fundraiser: Political division is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to breeding political loyalty, and loyalty translates into contributions."

Cheney Speaks to CPAC

Stephen Collinson writes for AFP "Vice President Dick Cheney told Democrats Thursday to stop 'posturing' on Iraq, warning it was an 'inconvenient truth' that the bloody conflict was the key front in the war on terror."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "A quick withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq could allow victorious Muslim extremists to fan out into other countries, with some militants going to Afghanistan to fight alongside a resurgent Taliban, Vice President Dick Cheney says."

From the transcript of Cheney's speech:

"If our coalition withdrew before Iraqis could defend themselves, radical factions would battle for dominance. The violence would likely spread throughout the country, and be very difficult to contain. Having tasted victory in Iraq, jihadists would look for new missions. Many would head for Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban. Others would set out for capitals across the Middle East, spreading more discord as they eliminate dissenters and work to undermine moderate governments. Still others would find their targets and victims in other countries, on other continents. Such chaos and mounting danger does not have to occur. It is, however, the enemy's objective.

"In these circumstances it's worth reminding ourselves that, like it or not, the enemy we face in the war on terror has made Iraq the primary front in that war. To use a popular phrase, this is an inconvenient truth. (Laughter and applause.) In bin Laden's words, and I quote, 'Success in Baghdad will be success for the United States. Failure in Iraq is the failure of the United States. Their defeat in Iraq will mean defeat in all their wars.' End quote. That makes one thing, above all, very clear: If you support the war on terror, then it only makes sense to support it where the terrorists are fighting us. (Applause.)"

Presidential Records Watch

Elizabeth Williamson writes in The Washington Post: "A bipartisan proposal targeting White House rules on the release of presidential papers would claw back power over public records from the executive branch, advocates of the bill say.

"The House measure, introduced yesterday, would overturn President Bush's 2001 executive order adding layers of review before presidential papers are made public. Historians and archivists say the order has kept thousands of documents from public view."

Sudeep Reddy writes for the Dallas Morning News: "Unless the order is overturned, scholars said Thursday, Bush's library - expected to be built at Southern Methodist University - may be deprived of much of the substance that would make it a meaningful source of information.

"Archivists and historians are urging SMU to reject the Bush library unless the administration changes its policy. University officials say procedures regarding disclosure of presidential papers should be left to policymakers.

"'We have to ask ourselves whether a presidential library existing under this order, at SMU or wherever it ends up, is but an empty shell of what such a library should be,' Steven Hensen of the Society of American Archivists told lawmakers at a hearing of a House oversight committee. . . .

"Historian Robert Dallek told lawmakers that all presidents 'want the public to think they walk on water - that they are without error, without sin.'

"'People want to be seen in history as successful, as wise, as sensible - and of course they're always less than that,' Dallek said. 'But the public is well-served by knowing what they were doing in the fullest possible way.'

"The House legislation by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and three other members - including two Republicans - would put the onus back on an ex-president to make a claim of executive privilege to the current president or a court.

"It also would establish time periods for review and limit such claims only to former presidents themselves, not their heirs."

More information about the proposed legislation is available from Waxman's office.

North Korea Watch

Jonathan S. Landay and Kevin G. Hall write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Bush administration, which used some false and exaggerated intelligence to make its case for invading Iraq, also may have inflated some of its allegations against North Korea to justify a hard-line policy toward the Stalinist regime.

"President Bush claimed in 2002 that North Korea was making highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons when there was no intelligence that it was doing so.

[See yesterday's column.]

"Now there are new questions about the administration's assertions that a bank in Macau knowingly laundered proceedings from North Korean narcotics trafficking, cigarette smuggling and counterfeit American currency.

"An audit of the Banco Delta Asia's finances by accounting firm Ernst & Young found no evidence that the bank had facilitated North Korean money-laundering, either by circulating counterfeit U.S. bank notes or by knowingly sheltering illicit earnings of the North Korean government. . . .

"Taken together, the pronouncements raised questions about whether the administration has been overstating its case against North Korea, a heavily armed communist dictatorship that Bush included in his 'axis of evil' with Iran and Iraq under the late dictator Saddam Hussein."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "Did the Bush administration rush to provoke a crisis with North Korea on sketchy evidence, trashing a flawed but workable arms-control agreement? Administration hawks had been on record for years opposing the 1994 deal. Did they 'spin' the intelligence to justify preordained policies? . . .

"[F]or the second time, serious questions have been raised about the credibility of U.S. assessments of the potential nuclear threat posed by an enemy nation. Are these charges justified? Given the U.S. need to enlist other nations to adopt sanctions to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions and deal with other proliferation challenges, that's a question that demands an answer."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "We would like to believe that the Bush administration has finally figured out how dangerous and counterproductive it is to hype intelligence -- and that that's why officials are admitting they're not sure North Korea ever got very far with a secret uranium-based nuclear program. But we doubt it.

"It was just last month that intelligence officials, with their bosses' clear blessings, were insisting that Iran's leaders had personally ordered the smuggling of especially lethal roadside bombs into Iraq. At least they did until the Pentagon's top general admitted that no one knew who in Iran was really calling those shots, and President Bush announced that it didn't matter anyway.

"So we suspect that this week's confessions of doubt about North Korea had less to do with a sudden burst of candor than the fact that Pyongyang has agreed to readmit nuclear inspectors -- who probably won't be able to find the active uranium enrichment program the administration has been alleging for more than four years."

Poll Watch

Marjorie Connelly blogs for the New York Times: "In the months since the Congressional elections, President Bush has lost substantial support among members of his own party, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

"Mr. Bush's approval rating dropped 13 percentage points since last fall among Republicans, 65 percent of whom now say they approve of the way he is handling his job as president, compared with 78 percent last October.

"Over all, Mr. Bush's job approval remains at one of its lowest points, with 29 percent of all Americans saying they approve of the way he is doing his job."

Here are the poll results.

Bush has only 25 percent approval on foreign policy and only 40 percent approval on the campaign against terrorism, both all-time lows.

And the public is deeply, overwhelmingly pessimistic about the value of keeping troops in Iraq. Only 20 percent said they think the U.S. military can be effective in lessening the fighting between groups of Iraqis; 70 percent said that is something the U.S. military cannot do much about.

Scooter Libby Watch

Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "Jurors considering perjury charges against I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby signaled yesterday that they were still working to reach a verdict after seven days of deliberations and did not expect to arrive at one this week, according to a note they sent to the presiding trial judge."

Newsweek's Michael Isikoff looks at the juror body language.

Michael Fleming writes in Variety: "Warner Bros. is developing a feature on the lives of Valerie Plame and Ambassador Joseph Wilson, the married couple drawn into a D.C. firestorm."

Appointee Watch

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush said Thursday that he would nominate a senior executive of the largest organization representing the nation's manufacturers to head the government agency assigned to protect consumers from dangerous products.

"Bush's choice of Michael E. Baroody, executive vice president of the National Assn. of Manufacturers, to be chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission drew an angry response from consumer advocates and predictions of a tough battle for Senate confirmation from the Democratic majority."

Said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.): "Here was a golden opportunity to put a true champion of consumers onto a very important commission, and instead President Bush selected someone who represents the special interests... This administration seems incapable of doing anything in the public interest."

Bush the Bookworm

Mary Ann Akers blogs for washingtonpost.com: "President Bush, noted bookworm, held a private confab with leading neoconservatives in the dining room of the White House residence Wednesday afternoon, hosting British historian Andrew Roberts, author of one of the president's favorite recent books, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. . . .

"Cheney actually took a copy of Roberts' book with him on his surprise trip this week to Afghanistan, where a suicide bomber struck all too close by while the vice president was on Bagram Air Force Base near Kabul. . . .

"Others who attended the coffee klatch included: historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, the wife of Irving Kristol -- a founder of the neoconservative moment -- and mother of Bill Kristol; Allen Guelzo, author of the book Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation; and Irwin Stelzer, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, which lists a 'senior advisor' named Lewis Libby."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart on Cheney's trip: "You may have noticed a subtle difference this week in D.C. The air -- a little crisper. The food -- a little more tasty. Homeless people -- weren't being discovered drained of blood. It could only mean one thing: Vice President Cheney was out of town. John Oliver explains Cheney's apparently contradictory statements to Stewart by reporting: "Vice President Cheney is a fleet of cyborgs stationed around the world in vacuum-sealed pods."

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