It used to be quite common for presidents to reach into the ranks of the press corps to find their spokesmen. But for almost three decades now, press secretaries have come with P.R. bona fides – not journalistic ones. Bush’s appointment this week of Fox News TV and radio personality Tony Snow to the job reverses that trend. ABC News political director Mark Halperin tells Brooke that it’s a step in the right direction for the Bush team.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week we learned who will be taking over as chief presidential flack - Fox News TV and radio personality, Tony Snow. It was clearly a gift from the president to headline writers � Snow Day, Snow Job, etc., but whether it will improve relations with the press is still unknown. Much has been made about the novelty of installing a journalist as spokesman. For three decades, press secretaries have tended to come from policy and public relations backgrounds, but there was a time when presidents routinely recruited spokesmen from the other side of the podium. FDR, Eisenhower, JFK and Ford all did. Snow, though, is a different animal, very much a product of his times, not just because he's the first TV personality tapped for the job, but because as a Fox News pundit and sometimes substitute for Rush Limbaugh, he straddles the increasingly blurry line between journalism and opinion mongering. Whatever he is, says ABC News political director Mark Halperin, his appointment should be seen as an improvement over the last five years of Bush message management.
MARK HALPERIN: This White House didn't empower the press secretaries to go out there and drive the message of the day in a way that reporters and the public would find captivating. You often see now the press room half full when Scott McClellan briefs. I think Tony Snow is not going to be afraid or nervous or figuratively sweaty � and maybe even literally sweaty � as Scott McClellan has been at times in the briefing room, because he knows about the mind of the people asking the questions, he knows how to answer, he knows how to be a performer, because that's what he's been doing for a living on Fox and on radio.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Exactly. He's used to being a performer. And as Rebecca Dana noted in The New York Observer, he's already elicited, because of that performance, a nickname in the White House press corps. They've called him "Max Headroom." And she made something of his white, fluffy hair. How much of this do you think is about hair?
MARK HALPERIN: Thirty-eight percent, maybe thirty-nine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
MARK HALPERIN: I mean, frankly � no offense to Mr. Snow � I don't find him to be that great-looking a guy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
MARK HALPERIN: He's perfectly attractive, but, you know, they're not going to make Antonio Banderas the White House Press Secretary -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
MARK HALPERIN: - so I think it's more about his performance skills. It's only been two presidencies where the briefing has been televised. I don't think any of the previous television-era press secretaries have used a daily televised briefing to maximum effect. And the thought is that having someone who will use that stage to try to advance the cause of a president �we'll see how effective it can be. And if he's effective, I suspect that the job description for future White House press secretaries will include, "must have three to five years of broadcast, television or radio experience" because it is an incredibly valuable platform. There's no other press secretary for any entity in the United States whose work commands so much attention, including often live cable and radio coverage, including the ability to become the lead quote in the network news and in wire stories all across the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He's coming at, everybody says, a terrible time for a White House spokesman. The president's numbers are in the basement. It will take a heck of a salesman to sell policies that have been so discredited.
MARK HALPERIN: If conditions with what Americans think of the economy or how things are going in Iraq, which are probably, along with gas prices, the president's three biggest political problems, if those things stay bad, then Tony Snow will not able to help. On the other hand, I think he will bring a more realistic sense to the White House about what they can say and do while those things evolve, in order to get a better hearing from the press corps. And I think that this was about making nice with the Washington press corps, number one, and number two, and probably more important, using the White House podium as an offensive weapon, rather than simply using it to get through the briefing because you have to have a briefing 'cause the Washington press corps expects it. That, I think, is the big strength that the White House wants Tony Snow to bring to this, which they did not have in Scott McClellan or Ari Fleischer, both in terms of their abilities but also in terms of what their brief was, what their charge was. They were not told to go out there and make news. They were told just the opposite.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Tony Snow says that he's going to have a lot more access to the inner circle than either of those two other people did. Do you think that this White House, which is so suspicious of the press, will actually give their press spokesman access to the inner sanctum?
MARK HALPERIN: I think he'll have more access and he'll be more empowered to come into the briefing room to try to make news, to try to shape what the public thinks on issues, such as immigration and tax cuts and budget cuts that, I think, Tony Snow has a chance, at least, to be more effective on than was Scott McClellan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right, because we already know his position on things like tax cuts and fiscal responsibility. That's one of the areas in which he has been most vociferously critical of the president. And, I wonder, that brings up the problem generally of Snow's paper trail. In fact, the liberal think tank Media Matters posed some questions that it thinks the press corps should ask, along the lines of, do you still think President Bush is a wimp who looks impotent for not vetoing any single bill, or could you elaborate on the, quote, "unbearably abstract and dull," unquote, portions of Bush's Social Security sales pitch that, quote, "made it stink?"
MARK HALPERIN: I think this is not going to be his problem. You will recall that Mike McCurry worked for Senator Bob Kerrey when he ran against Bill Clinton for president in 1991 and 1992, Ari Fleischer worked for Elizabeth Dole when she was running for president against George Bush in 1999. And both those gentlemen made statements that were critical of the men they would go on to serve as White House press secretary. So I don't think it's his past statements that are going to be a problem. Reporters will ask him once. He'll give some humorous answer and he'll move on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
MARK HALPERIN: I think the problem will be if he finds himself disagreeing with the president's policies. He's saying now, �Well, of course, I'll follow the president's policies. He's in charge.� But the question is if he doesn't agree with the policies, can he take off that pundit hat? Can he wipe away his sensibility, which said if the president's doing something bad I'm going to be critical? Because he can't continue to disagree with the president, and he may be underestimating the difficulty he'll have in adjusting the first time the president says, this is what we're doing and he says, I don't think that's a good idea.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Halperin, thank you very much.
MARK HALPERIN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Halperin is political director of ABC News. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
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