There will be no great monuments built to honor Tony Snow, former White House press secretary and journalist who died this morning at age 53.
They don’t erect too many statues for those who toil in the trenches of political combat, battling for what they believe with a smile and uncommon good humor. Nor do they build vast memorials for regular Joes who inspire the rest of us to live a life true to ourselves and our loved ones.
No, they won’t build them — but perhaps they should. For if we only build such tributes to honor the well known or well born among us, we fail to take into account that it is usually the ordinaries who teach us the most about life and encourage us to live every day as if it were a gift rather than a travail.
Reading the dozens of encomiums written by friends, colleagues, rivals, political foes, and allies, it is clear that Tony Snow was universally thought of as a man of principle who thoroughly enjoyed the jousting of the political wars in Washington while earning respect for not allowing personal acrimony to cloud his relationships with the opposition.
He took perhaps the toughest political job in Washington — spokesman for the president — and tried to walk the line between cheerleading and information dissemination. He was not always successful. Nor can it be said that he was loved by the White House press corps (as cynical a group of reporters as there is anywhere). But even when things got contentious, Snow tried to charm his foes rather than get into a shouting match with them.
This did not endear him to reporters but that wasn’t his job. When he first stood before the press gaggle, he said one of the reasons he wanted the position was that he wanted to “work with the president, but, believe it or not, to work with all of you.” He knew the times would be “challenging” but he felt he could maintain his credibility.
Through the nadir of the Iraq War and the controversy over the leaking of Valerie Plame’s name to journalists, Snow strove to balance the interests of the White House with trying to keep the press genuinely informed. The tension — as it is for all press secretaries — proved too much because in the end, the press secretary does not answer to the public or to reporters but to the president alone. However, Snow was good-humored when spinning the White House line and he was given high marks for fairness and courtesy.
Fox News describes this relationship with the White House press corps:
At the White House, Snow brought partisan zeal and the skills of a seasoned performer to the task of explaining and defending the president’s policies. During daily briefings he challenged reporters, scolded them, and questioned their motives as if he were starring in a TV show broadcast live from the West Wing.
“The White House has lost a great friend and a great colleague,” said Perino in a statement released to the media. “We all loved watching him at the podium, but most of all we learned how to love our families and treat each other.”
Critics suggested Snow was turning the traditionally informational daily briefing into a personality-driven media event short on facts and long on confrontation. He was the first press secretary, by his own accounting, to travel the country raising money for Republican candidates.
Snow apparently relished this back and forth with the media. This from the Washington Post’s obit:
In his brief tenure as the president’s public advocate, Snow became perhaps the best-known face of the Bush administration after the president, vice president, and secretary of state. Parlaying skills honed during years at Fox News, Snow offered a daily televised defense of the embattled president that was robust and at times even combative while still repairing strained relations with a press corps frustrated by years of rote talking points.
He was lively and entertaining, he could be disarmingly candid when ducking a question, and he did not hesitate to retreat when it became clear he had gone too far. He could tell reporters to “zip it” one minute while defusing tension the next by admitting that he knew so little on a topic that he was “not going to fake it.” He enjoyed the give-and-take of a tough briefing, but his smile, upbeat energy, and glib repartee seemed to take the edge off sometimes rough rhetoric on behalf of an unpopular leader and unpopular policies.
When Bob Woodward of the Washington Post disclosed internal White House maneuvering to push out then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Snow tried to dismiss the account with a memorable putdown. “The book is sort of like cotton candy: It kind of melts on contact,” he said. When a flamboyant radio reporter demanded to know whether Snow was going to evade a typically offbeat question, Snow chuckled. “No,” he said, “I’m going to laugh at it.”
It was Snow’s bout with serious illness beginning in 2005 when he was diagnosed with colon cancer that allowed him to set an example of grace and courage under the most trying of circumstances and where he reminded all of us of what is truly important in life: family, friends, and God.
When the cancer reoccurred in 2007, he seemed all too human when standing in front of the press and expressing bewilderment that the illness had returned.” You never anticipate this stuff,” he said. “It just happens.” But rather than dwell on the negative, Snow immediately reminded us of the preciousness of life:
“Not everybody will survive cancer,” Snow told the reporters, “but on the other hand, you have got to realize you’ve got the gift of life, so make the most of it. That is my view, and I’m going to make the most of my time with you.”
He raised a lot of money for cancer research, appearing at dozens of events even when the chemo and the radiation took its toll on his constitution. And his inspirational message was magnified by the obvious zest for life that he could demonstrate even under vicious assault by the disease that eventually claimed his life.
Snow was the original host of the Fox News Sunday show and became a well-known analyst and partisan through his work in radio where his own top-rated show was a must-listen for conservatives. He had been a journalist for most of his adult life with stints at the Washington Times and Detroit News, where he eventually parlayed his writing into a nationally syndicated column. This brought him to the attention of President George Bush #41 and he joined the president’s staff as a media specialist.
Tony Snow will be remembered as a gentleman by his friends and colleagues. And perhaps that’s the highest tribute that can be paid to a man who considered himself lucky to wake up every day and be able to hug his wife and three children and thank the Lord that he was alive.
A perspective to which all of us should aspire to be sure.