Naming Tony Snow press secretary is President Bush’s most promising decision since Hurricane Katrina winded him nearly seven months ago. The president should let the veteran commentator craft and disseminate the administration’s message in clever and concrete ways, as the capable Snow can do.
Snow approaches his position with something outgoing press secretary Scott McClellan lacks: the ability to communicate. McClellan, surely a nice man who loves his country and his family, looks pained and frightened at his briefings. Sniffing blood in the water, reporters chomp into him like sharks devouring a walrus. This leaves McClellan with little to do but meekly repeat his lame talking points. My contacts among the president’s conservative base uniformly pity his performance. I shudder to imagine how much McClellan’s haplessness has weakened America’s image overseas during wartime.
Snow, in contrast, has spent 27 years in print, TV, and radio journalism. He is telegenic, charismatic, sharp, quick, and simultaneously tough and affable. In an administration that seems unable to explain its direction, Snow easily can defend the president’s agenda, and even actively promote it.
Snow has the wits and wherewithal to redefine this position. Here are a few ways he could build a better press office:
Showcase the media’s shortcomings. Snow should not be the press’ errand boy. While he should provide journalists information for their pieces, he also should remind them daily what they are missing and strongly persuade them to cover details and entire stories they neglect.
Correct journalists’ mistakes. Snow should approach each day like a professor reviewing his students’ homework. Name names. “Terry Moran, here are three glaring errors in the first 15 seconds of your latest ABC News report,” Snow might say. “Let me try to help you.”
In a new feature called, “Here’s What You Missed,” Snow should present TV footage the media actively ignore. For example, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld withstood withering heat in December 2004 after telling a GI in Kuwait, who wanted more armored Humvees, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want.” Critics called Rumsfeld mean and callous.
Most journalists neglected to report that Rumsfeld also said, “The goal we have is to have as many of those vehicles as is humanly possible with the appropriate level of armor available for the troops.” Rumsfeld added: “The other day…I looked outside the Pentagon and there were six or eight up-armored Humvees. They’re not there anymore. They’re en route out here.” Soldiers cheered.
Showcasing such complete remarks and publicly handing journalists DVDs of corresponding video will make it harder for liberal reporters to spread half-truths by feigning ignorance of inconvenient facts.
Extinguish flames before they become infernos. President Bush took considerable flack, for instance, for not attending the NAACP’s July 2004 convention, among others. Bush isn’t interested in black votes, news stories on this matter winked. McClellan and company did bupkis to refute these insinuations. They easily could have explained that Bush saw little point in addressing a group whose chairman, Julian Bond, said that June 23 that the GOP’s “idea of equal rights is the American flag and Confederate swastika flying side by side.”
Similarly, after Hurricane Katrina Rep. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.) said, “George Bush is our Bull Connor,” He told enraged Congressional Black Caucus conventioneers last September 22. “If you’re black in this country, and you’re poor in this country, it’s not an inconvenience. It’s a death sentence.”
As numerous black Democrats amplified Rangel’s charges, McClellan & Co. could have explained that under President Bush, federal anti-poverty spending per-poor-recipient in New Orleans swelled 73.3 percent, as Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst Kirk Johnson calculated in about two hours, among many other interesting statistics. Imagine what a few OMB staffers could compile in a jiffy. While touting such spending hardly buoys conservatives, doing so would have blunted charges that President Bush ethnically cleansed New Orleans. Leaving such incendiary garbage unchallenged makes lies stick. Thus, “everybody knows” Bush let New Orleans drown because he doesn’t care about black people. Forcefully rebutting administration critics beats hiding in the Situation Room in hopes they will go away. They will not.
Don’t leak; speak. President Bush’s mistake in partially declassifying intelligence data was his failure to use them to explain Operation Iraqi Freedom. He erred by leaking this information to the New York Times’s Judith Miller rather than announcing it to the entire country. Snow should argue for sunshine rather than narrowly tailored points of light.
Stop helping media foes. The New York Times does not deserve leaks, exclusives, or anything beyond its subscription fees, assuming White House staffers insist on reading it. Leaking to the Times, America’s most obsessively anti-Bush major newspaper, is like handing one’s bitterest critic a loaded gun and awaiting good news. President Bush also let the Times publish his exclusive August 2001 op-ed on stem cells. Why? Times reporters are not royalty. Let them eat news releases.
Cultivate friendly media outlets. Share exclusive interviews, presidential essays, and special news alerts with sympathetic and fair journalists. President Bush’s next article should appear on the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Make the New York Times’s reporters gnash their teeth as they quote from the president’s exclusive interview with New York Post correspondent Deborah Orin. Chuckle as incoming CBS newsreader Katie Couric airs footage of the President’s tête-à-tête with Fox News Channel’s Wendell Goler. By favoring the center-right media, the president will enhance their prestige while the anti-Bush establishment media play catch-up.
Organize Cabinet press secretaries. One secret of Ronald Reagan’s success was close, White-House-directed coordination among his Cabinet agencies. Thus, Snow should meet regularly with Cabinet-level press secretaries and assure that his chief deputies and theirs are in frequent contact. This would help develop and reinforce administration-wide themes. In fact, Snow should go further and strategize with top GOP press secretaries on Capitol Hill to harmonize Republican communications on key issues.
Tony Snow is a movement conservative who I have had the pleasure to meet several times. One of my favorite Cold War memories involves calling him in August 1989 from Moscow’s Cosmos Hotel. While editing the Washington Times’ editorial page, Snow typed quickly as I phoned in a story about the stunning news that Mikhail Gorbachev’s government had approved the first Soviet edition of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It was to be released jointly by the official Kniga Publishing Company and, even more amazing, a dissident group. This was heady stuff back then. Of course, neither I, Snow, nor Gorbachev knew that within three months, the Berlin Wall would collapse, rendering my huge story moot.
President Bush would serve himself well by letting Tony Snow–a man who has spent decades expressing solid, conservative beliefs–display his talents and instincts at full throttle. The president can harness this fine appointee best by letting Snow be Snow.