Monday, October 16, 2006

Press Secretary Raising Money, and Eyebrows

The New York Times
Press Secretary Raising Money, and Eyebrows

ST. CHARLES, Ill., Oct. 15 — Tony Snow draped his lanky frame across a wooden lectern, leaned forward and gazed out at 850 adoring Republicans who had paid $175 apiece to hear him speak. There was a conspiratorial gleam in his eye, as if he was about to reveal some deep inner secret from his new life as the White House press secretary.

“Yesterday,” Mr. Snow declared, “I was in the Oval Office with the president ——”

He cut himself off, took a perfectly calibrated three-second pause and switched into an aw-shucks voice for dramatic effect: “I just looove saying that! Yeaaah, I was in the Oval Office. Just meeee and the president. Nooooobody else.” The crowd lapped it up.

Live from the suburbs of Chicago — It’s the Tony Snow Outside-the-Beltway Hour! Memo to White House press corps: you can’t catch this show in the briefing room.

In the six months since Mr. Bush enlisted him to resuscitate a White House press operation that was barely breathing, Mr. Snow, a former Fox News television and radio host and a conservative commentator, has reinvented the job with his snappy sound bites and knack for deflecting tough questions with a smile.

Now, he is reinventing it yet again, by breaking away from the briefing room to raise money for Republicans, as he did here on Saturday night for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.

Mr. Snow, who will make 16 such appearances before Election Day, acknowledged he had entered “terra incognita”; to his knowledge, no other White House press secretary has raised money for political candidates while in the job. But with his star power from television and his conservative credentials, Mr. Snow, unlike his predecessors, is in hot demand.

His booking agent is the White House political shop, run by Karl Rove, the president’s chief strategist. The White House is not keeping track of how much money Mr. Snow raises.

His talks — Saturday night’s was a cross between a one-man show and a religious revival — have attracted little scrutiny so far, but they are giving a much-needed boost to a party whose midterm fortunes appear increasingly bleak.

Yet even as the Republican establishment revels in his celebrity — “It’s like Mick Jagger at a rock concert,” Mr. Rove said — Mr. Snow’s extracurricular activities are making some veteran Washington hands, including those with strong Republican ties, deeply uneasy.

“The principal job of the press secretary is to present information to reporters, not propaganda,” said David R. Gergen, who served in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations and also advised President Bill Clinton. “If he is seen as wearing two hats, reporters as well as the public will inevitably wonder: is he speaking to us now as the traditional press secretary, or is he speaking to us as a political partisan?”

Indeed, Mr. Snow, whose commentary was so sharply critical of Mr. Bush that six months before he was hired, he referred to Mr. Bush as “something of an embarrassment,” got the White House job in part because his independence gave him credibility with reporters. Kenneth J. Duberstein, former chief of staff to Ronald Reagan, said Mr. Snow must be careful not to damage that credibility.

“His profile should not be a political profile,” Mr. Duberstein said, “but a press profile on behalf of the president.”

But of course, press secretaries are naturally partisans; to think otherwise would be naïve. Ari Fleischer, Mr. Bush’s first press secretary, said he saw nothing wrong with fund-raising appearances, “so long as you don’t make yourself into red meat.”

There was, for the record, not a shred of red meat in Mr. Snow’s whirlwind performance Saturday night. For 28 minutes, Mr. Snow paced the stage, hands gesticulating, eyebrows arching, voice rising and falling, as he held forth without notes on the greatness of his job, his president and the American people.

Here was Mr. Snow on working in the White House: “The most exciting, intellectually aerobic job I’m ever going to have.”

On the nature of the American soul after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11: “There is an ember of greatness burning in every heart.” On the intellectual acumen of his boss: “He reminds me of one of those guys at the gym who plays about 40 chessboards at once.”

There were no mean words about Democrats. Mr. Snow, aware of his delicate balancing act, has vowed to “stick to factual defenses and advocacy for the president.”

But as the keynote speaker, of course, he got to choose which facts to defend. There was no mention of Mark Foley, the Florida congressman who resigned in late September amid revelations he had sent sexually explicit e-mail to teenage pages, or Jack Abramoff, the corrupt lobbyist, or anybody else who makes Republicans cringe.

That did not sit well with the local news media, which have been following accusations that Mr. Hastert’s aides knew of the Foley scandal several years ago. Just two days earlier, Mr. Bush had been in Chicago to give the speaker his support.

After his talk, Mr. Snow gave a mini news conference, and was asked why he failed to raise the Foley issue, “to reassure the people who are paying 175 bucks a plate here tonight.”

“Because,” Mr. Snow shot back tartly, “last time I checked Mark Foley didn’t represent the people of this district.”

Back in Washington, Mr. Snow has gained a reputation for such witty, if biting, repartee. Sound bites seem to flow from his tongue like water tumbling downstream.

Once, he accused the veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas, who is 86 and has been covering presidents since Mr. Snow, 51, was in grade school, of “pestering the teacher.” And when Bob Woodward painted a portrait of a dysfunctional Bush White House in his new book, “State of Denial,” Mr. Snow dismissed it out of hand. “Sort of like cotton candy — it melts on contact,” he said.

Jim Axelrod, chief White House correspondent for CBS News, said of Mr. Snow, “He’s velvet glove and iron fist.”

But when Mr. Snow missed a day of work to attend a fund-raiser after a leading Republican senator raised questions about the president’s Iraq policy, Mr. Axelrod was critical. “This is the kind of thing you would expect the press secretary to be handling square on,” he said.

Mr. Snow said his deputy handled the questions just fine.

It is often said that the White House press secretary serves two masters: the president and the press, which relies on the press secretary to advocate for the release of information. Mr. Snow believes that is true — to a point.

“The press secretary serves two masters,” he said, “but not all masters are equal.”

That gets back to his decision to headline fund-raisers, a decision he says he made only after soliciting the advice of colleagues, including the White House counsel, Harriet E. Miers. Mr. Snow said he set his own ground rules and would quit raising money if it interfered with his day job.

How will he know? “I have the feeling that all of us will know,” he said. “You kind of know it when you see it.”

Mr. Gergen sees this as the final “blurring of the lines between politics and news and entertainment.” Mr. Fleischer says those lines blurred long ago.

“The modern-day briefing is not a briefing but a TV show,” he said, “and Tony is the star.”

Mr. Snow said his stardom was only “the reflected glory of the president.” But on Saturday night, as he basked in the spotlight, his face beaming out at the crowd from six oversize screens, he looked awfully happy when he said, “Let me bring you greetings from the president of the United States.”