- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2006

President Bush’s appointment of Tony Snow as his press secretary brings a whole new element to the White House press office, and the Democrats are treating it as such.

Never before has appointment of a press secretary begun immediately with a smear campaign by the opposite political party. It was as if the Democrats feared the sting of a capable new press secretary even before he sat down at his desk. It appears they are trying to make anything he says sound political.

In effect, the Democrats have treated this like an appointment to the Supreme Court, digging up his past comments to undercut what he may be called upon to announce later. As a former talk show host, Mr. Snow can be quoted often in past criticism of the administration and the president, but talk show hosts are paid to be controversial.

This appointment is different in several ways. Most press secretaries have had either a newspaper or a campaign background. Mr. Snow is only the second broadcaster to become a press secretary, though he also has extensive experience as a newspaper columnist and editorial writer.

The first broadcaster to hold that office was Ron Nessen, who served President Jerry Ford, after Jerald terHorst resigned the post after about a month when Mr. Ford pardoned Richard Nixon in an effort to put the Watergate scandal behind the White House. Mr. Nessen served 1974-77.

On the day his appointment was announced, Mr. Snow calmly handled his situation by saying: “Look, they want people to express their opinions. You’re not coming in here to drink Kool-Aid, you’re coming into here to serve the president. And at this junction I think what you want is as much honest counsel as you can get. So when I agree, I agree. When I disagree, I disagree. But on any vote, his is the tie-breaker…. The president’s the guy who runs the place.”

Mr. Snow is conservative, personally, and he is known as an independent who always has been willing to speak his own mind. That was true when he was a speechwriter for former President George H.W. Bush. He sometimes treaded a fine line, but he knew his place, and no one accused him of disloyalty.

Mr. Snow, who will take a major cut in pay to do the job, has the full backing of Dan Bartlett, the president’s senior assistant for communications. “I’m excited,” Mr. Bartlett says. “We first were worried about Snow’s recent bout with cancer, but we were delighted when he gained full medical clearance. Tony brings to us 30 years experience in the media and in government. I like the fact that he has a reputation for being innovative, and we can use that.”

Mr. Bartlett confirms Mr. Snow will have full White House access, though he also says Mr. McClellan had more access than the press believed: “Snow will be more involved with the president.”

Mr. Bush has not had a strong press secretary, and that has been a problem in his relations with the media. His initial press secretary was Ari Fleischer who served with him during his first presidential campaign. Mr. Fleischer left office in July 2003, at a time when he was unpopular with the press, which felt he was not fully truthful. That damaged his credibility.

During President Johnson’s time, Arthur Sylvester, a former newsman and press assistant to the secretary of the Navy, once espoused a theory that the government has a right to lie. That was one of the worst statements ever made by a press aide, and it cost him his job. Ari Fleischer was no Arthur Sylvester, but fairly or unfairly, he was damaged by a lack of credibility.

Scott McClellan, whom Mr. Snow succeeds, was criticized for a seeming lack of knowledge of the subjects he was announcing. “It was like he was reading from cue cards, and you got the feeling he was a deer in the path of headlights,” one reporter said. George Condon, Copley News Service Washington bureau chief, said: “Scott just didn’t make news, and most of the time I found his sessions to be a waste of time.”

Tom Johnson, Lyndon Johnson’s final press secretary, suffered a tough press when it was his president who lost credibility over Vietnam. Tom Johnson says, “sometimes when I honestly did not know the answer to a question, I would admit that and say I would come back with an answer.”

Mr. Johnson, who later became publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and head of CNN, had close access to the president, as did his predecessors, George Christianson and Bill Moyers. But their president sometimes would act on his own, leaving questions difficult to answer. That kind of problem was a factor when Johnson’s first press secretary, George Reedy, lost his job.

Tom Johnson, who was not related to the president, says the success of a press secretary depends on the president and whether the secretary gains full access to all key policy matters. “The press secretary is no better than the president lets him to be,” Mr. Johnson says.

In the Bush administration, the two most powerful communicators have been first Karen Hughes and now Dan Bartlett. Both are creative and highly capable. But sometimes at the wrong times they, too, have been overruled. It appears that when relaxed, the president does well with the media. He should do it far more, but often he is unwilling to put in the time to prepare for a full press conference.

Mr. Snow says one of the conditions in taking the job was full access to the Oval Office and to other White House seniors. If that holds true, he seems to have the ability to become a strong and respected press secretary. But he must have the access.

The man who set the parameters for the modern press office was James Haggerty, press secretary to President Eisenhower. Haggerty, a New York Times political reporter, was strongly recommended to Eisenhower by Tom Dewey, who after losing to Harry Truman, became a key figure in the “I Like Ike” campaign. Eisenhower was not comfortable with the press and gave major responsibility to Haggerty. During the president’s heart attack and hospitalization, it was Haggerty and then-Vice President Richard Nixon who ran the country.

In my career in government, Haggerty was both my tutor and my role model, and he was the role model for most others who have been involved in White House communications.

Four of the strongest modern press secretaries were Pierre Salinger (for John Kennedy), Marlin Fitzwater (Ronald Reagan), George Christianson and Tom Johnson (Lyndon Johnson). The press secretary who took the strongest beating from the press was Ron Ziegler, virtually chased from the briefing room by the angriest press corps the nation has seen — all because of Watergate. To Mr. Ziegler’s credit, he knew nothing about the Watergate break-in, but that did not help with the media.

With Mr. Bush’s low rating in the public opinion polls, he needs a strong press secretary. Mr. Snow has the qualifications to be that man. The president’s congressional relations team also has been criticized, but it probably will stay in place with more assistance from the president.

Mr. Bush still has time to regain some of his political strength. In the long term, however, the real keys to success lie in the hands of the president and his policies and in what happens in Iraq.

Herbert G. Klein is a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, retired editor-in-chief of Copley Newspapers, and former Nixon White House director of communications.


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