Let us now praise Tony Snow. That's what the prestige media have been doing, anyway, as largely positive pieces about the White House press secretary have appeared in two leading newspapers over the last few weeks.
I say "largely" positive because both stories did a funny little two-step, attempting to be tough on Snow but winding up in his lap, purring.
The first, by The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, appeared on the front page of that paper's Style section last week under the headline "Tony Snow Knows How to Work More Than One Room; It's Gloves Off (and Pass the Hat) for Bush Spokesman." The essential message was that Snow is awfully good at his job, particularly when it comes to disarming the reporters who cover him:
"Part of Snow's art—some might deem it spin—is to openly proclaim what he is doing. Last week, for instance, after consulting with the office of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Snow doggedly refused to field questions on what President Bush thought of Hastert's handling of the Foley mess. 'I will dodge it, and I will tell you exactly why I'm going to dodge it,' Snow explained. 'Because this is a question that requires knowledge of a lot of details that are not in evidence, certainly not to me, at this point.'" Of course the admitted-dodge dodge is a very old trick, but never mind. Such moves are working like a charm on the press corps, as the next paragraph made clear:
"In the five months since he succeeded the tightly scripted Scott McClellan, Snow has put his verbal agility and sense of humor to good use, and the White House has clearly given him more running room. Struggling on several fronts, from Iraq to domestic scandals to depressed poll numbers, that have put the Republican control of Congress at risk, the president has never been more in need of a slick salesman. Administration officials describe Snow as a major asset."
The New York Times followed this week with its own Snow study, a front-pager by Sheryl Gay Stolberg. Choking on The Post's fumes, The Times tried to make its piece feel newsy by emphasizing an angle that Kurtz had touched on briefly near the end of his story: Snow's popularity as a fundraiser for the GOP, a historically unprecedented role for a White House press secretary. Stolberg laid out the objections to such activity, quoting, among others, David Gergen, who worried that if the press secretary "is seen as wearing two hats," the public will wonder if he's partisan. The fundraising question lent the piece a critical veneer. Still, thanks to a vivid lead about Snow performing brilliantly out in rubber-chicken land, the ultimate message of the story was the opposite of critical. In effect, The Times was crowning this unusually partisan press secretary as the party's new pop idol. "It's like Mick Jagger at a rock concert," Karl Rove was effervescently quoted as saying.
Snow's rise is unquestionably news, and it's useful to know exactly how he tames the many-headed media beast (it's "the megawatt smile," one reporter told Kurtz). But because this was the kind of news that cares more about pure gamesmanship (Snow's riding high!!) than the principles underlying the game (Is he truthful? Is he doing anything to make this closed administration more open?), it wound up having less value than it appeared to have.
Except to Snow and his No. 1 client. For this White House to pull off this kind of coverage, in two not-exceedingly-friendly papers, at this particular moment in time—war raging, polls down, a tough election weeks away—is a pretty massive coup. After all, to be seen as dominating the press corps (yet again) is a guaranteed image-burnisher among the rank-and-file Republican voters whose turnout will be so crucial.
Snow's new stardom came up in the White House press briefing the day the Times piece appeared, albeit not in a terribly serious way. A questioner referred to both stories as raves, and Snow didn't miss a beat:
Snow: Stolberg wrote a rave? Thank you. (Laughter.)
Stolberg: It's all in the eye of the beholder. (Laughter.)
He sure keeps 'em laughing. Ha-ha.