Tony Snow: Defender of the President and the Faith

The first time I encountered Tony Snow was through his columns for the Detroit News in the 1980s, when I was an undergraduate subscribing to a forgotten but quite good publication called Conservative Chronicle. His articles were like his later work for Fox News: a combination of reliable research and lively commentary, with the latter grounded in the former, making his arguments cogent and convincing. When you read Tony Snow’s op-ed pieces, you were engaged and learned something; you came away with the assurance that the case you just heard was rational and reasoned. He advanced his particular point and, usually, the larger conservative cause.

It was a trait he would display a decade-and-a-half later, not just behind the camera at Fox News or the microphone from his radio talk-show but, mercifully, behind the podium as the press secretary for a Bush administration that until then had no spokesman capable of publicly defending the president. Prior to Tony Snow, watching Bush administration press conferences was agonizing. One would suffer mind-boggling questions from the likes of Helen Thomas, fired with bracing assuredness and even arrogance, only to absorb the final, devastating blow as press secretaries like Scott McClellan—or the president himself—curled up in the fetal position, telling Helen how much they admired and respected her and her question, allowing her the last word. The other liberal activists masking as journalists beamed, reveling in their victory, slowly but surely chipping away at George W. Bush’s ever-declining approval rating, and framing the public debate.

Then came Tony Snow. I recall the first time he took on Helen Thomas, and also David Gregory. It must have taken everything he had to not say, “I’m sorry but that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard in a long time, and I can’t believe you actually think it’s clever…. Let me take a mere five or 10 seconds to tell you why that makes no sense at all. This won’t take long.” Though he was never that harsh, he did carry an edge—a very necessary edge that the opposition deserved and required. One could feel the palpable shock in the press corps, as if the reporters were thinking: Hey, wait a minute, aren’t you supposed to allow us to beat you into a pulp? This is the Bush administration, after all. And we’re smarter than you!

Alas, the president had found himself a defender. And when reporters, naturally, complained that Tony was being mean to them and was obviously too partisan—after all, he didn’t agree with them—Tony Snow shrugged his shoulders and continued to do the job the way it badly needed to be done. Like those columns for the Detroit paper in the 1980s, he was lively and was grounding his response in facts and reason. He had also learned in the 1980s, in part from watching a Republican president who succeeded with public opinion, that you must respond to your critics, you must take them on, you cannot—and should not—let them devour you.

I would like to close by noting something I personally witnessed in Tony Snow, which I mean sincerely and not as a sappy cliché at the time of his death: his faith was important to him and very much a part of him. (That faith was something he shared with President Bush and which is the president’s strength, unlike their contrasting willingness to respond to detractors.)

I learned this when he had me on his TV show in February 2004 to talk about my book on the faith of Ronald Reagan. Unlike a lot of hosts, he actually read the book—quickly within days of its release. Just before we went live on-air, he paused to tell me that he felt a special connection to Reagan’s story because Reagan, like himself, had come out of the Disciples of Christ tradition, the denomination that had grown out of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio through Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. “That was my family,” he told me proudly.

He strongly identified with the Reagan of those roots. When Reagan died four months later, Snow called to bring me on his radio show to discuss the subject again. The topic was important to Tony Snow: he didn’t want people to neglect this essential, fundamental aspect of Reagan. He was again calling upon research, presenting it in a lively format, and hoping that people would learn.

Now, it is that faith, in the end, which is the one thing that matters most in the life of Tony Snow. May he rest in peace after an agonizing struggle with a killer disease.