Not to build up expectations or anything, but one has to assume that the newly designated White House press secretary has something good up his sleeve. Surely he is not leaving his gigs at Fox News and on the lecture circuit just to come and suffer the same painful fate as Scott McClellan.
As an example of what Snow will have to avoid, let's consider the McClellan press briefing of April 26. The lame-duck press secretary made a few announcements about Katrina and Gulf Coast rebuilding; reporters weren't interested, of course. Katrina relief may still be important -- it's certainly important to the affected people -- but it's not a "hot" story anymore.
That reality became manifest as soon as McClellan said the words signaling the beginning of the daily feeding frenzy: "And with that, I am glad to go to your all's questions today." And here was the first question:
Whereupon, McClellan offered the following non-answer answer:
This is not the best way to conduct the people's business, nor to facilitate the people's right to know. Once upon a time, in a smaller, cozier media environment, it was possible to transfer information in a civil way, via such Q&A sessions. Dwight Eisenhower's press secretary, Jim Hagerty, was genuinely popular with reporters. And while press relations reached a low point in the Nixon presidency, during the time of Ron "inoperative" Ziegler in the early 70s, there was a big uptick under Jim Brady at the beginning of the Reagan era -- until, of course, Brady's tenure was tragically cut short. And yet another Republican, Marlin Fitzwater, was also popular with reporters. (I am not claiming here that presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Bush 41 necessarily got a good press, merely that reporters liked those particular press secretaries -- and they got their bosses better coverage than Nixon.)
In the 90s, things got tougher, in part because television cameras became more intrusive, making the briefing "hotter," literally and figuratively. Plus, there was the little controversy over whether or not Bill Clinton could tell the truth about anything. The press secretary during the most grueling showdowns at Credibility Gulch was Mike McCurry. Yes, he had to deal with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but he kept his sense of humor, his popularity, and his effectiveness.
How did McCurry manage that? First off, he was a Democrat, so in the minds of MSM reporters -- basically the only kind there was, even just a decade ago -- he couldn't have been all bad.
But more importantly, McCurry had a kind of raffish charm. Asked the same question over and over again, he would generally find ways to answer it differently each time -- and half-way entertainingly. He would say things like, "I'm not going to get into that, because if I did, I'd have to hire a lawyer." That was a complete non-response, of course, but it had a quality of honesty to it; nobody wants to get socked with multi-million-dollar legal bills, and reporters could empathize with that. Yet at the same time, McCurry was teasing reporters with the sense that he knew plenty of good stuff, he just wasn't going to tell them, at least not from the podium. Meanwhile, he was usually good for some off-the-record drinking sessions; with Mike, there was always some potential energy, something to look forward to.
But if McCurry was the Artful Dodger, McClellan, who moseyed along a few years later, was Deputy Dawg. Who's a more entertaining character? For that matter, who's more likeable?
Consider this colloquy from CNN this past Sunday:
As noted, McCurry was no more informative than McClellan -- in fact, maybe less informative. But McCurry put on a good show; reporters knew that they were being spun by a genuinely clever guy. By contrast, with McClellan, there was no depth there -- and not much there there. White House reporters might have felt they were punching up a bit with McCurry, but they knew they were punching down with McClellan. And so while punching out the latter might have boosted the profiles of a few press-pugilists, such as Hearst's Helen Thomas and NBC's David Gregory, most reporters grew weary of Scott-baiting.
So now to the Snow Show.
The new guy is getting preemptively whacked by the likes of the liberal Center for American Progress, and obligatorily defended in places like Opinionjournal.com, but the real test will come soon enough, when he goes live before the American people.
However, expect something new. I have known Tony since the late 80s, when he was at The Washington Times; we worked together, happily, inside the Bush 41 White House. He has a sense of humor, and a sense of history, both. He has irony, too, and while that's not a prized commodity inside the Bush White House, reporters sure like it, and those folks are a key constituency for him now.
Since joining Fox in the 90s, Snow has been upclose to the big transformations of the media: talk radio, proliferating cable channels and, of course, the Net. So I expect that the basic model of presidential press-secretaryship, which hasn't really changed since the advent of the TV camera, will start now to evolve. Surely Snow will have a plan for taking the President's case out far beyond the jaded journos in the press room.
Finally, if Tony and the President mean it when they assert that the new press secretary will have a place at the Big Table, where the Real Decisions are made, then watching Tony will be fun, for the same reason that it was fun to watch McCurry. That is, there'll always be the feeling that he knows more than he's telling, and so it'll always be worth tuning in, just to see what might happen. It's like watching a good actor: you get the feeling that there's an intelligence back there, guiding each raising of an eyebrow or half-smile of a lip. Which is to say, it could be a jolly good show -- and is there any doubt that a record number of viewers will tune in for his debut?
Because while Snow has gotten a big career-booster with this new gig, it's his boss, Bush, who really needs the juice right now, anywhere he can find it.
Copyright 2006, TCS Daily