The Has-been

The Flack Who Would Be Wonk

Tony Snow wants to be a policymaker. Too bad the White House no longer makes policy.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Person-to-Person: Whenever Tony Snow is asked about the transition from pundit to player, he sounds like a kid in a candy store. After years of having opinions, he is thrilled to be in a position to get them a hearing.

In an interview with Bill O’Reilly before he took the job, Snow not only made his customary mid-sentence shift from first to second person, but finished the thought by switching species:

The upside for someone like me, you become part of something that is very rare, which is the White House inner circle where you get to make decisions. It’s a meaty, substantive job.

This week’s Newsweek quotes him saying in that same interview, “The upside is that for someone like me who’s been a pundit for many years, you sit around and you think about the way the world should be.”

Clearly, Tony Snow wants to be the Bobby Kennedy of press secretaries: Some White House spokesmen see things as they are and ask, “Why?” This White House spokesman dreams things that never were and asks, “Why not?”

Pundits get to sit around and think about the way the world should be. Press secretaries get to stand in front of firing squads and think on their feet—mostly about how foolish they were to accept the job in the first place.

Man of Influence: Ever the optimist, Snow reportedly insisted on a policy role. The pundits he left behind are sitting around debating whether he’ll get it. On the NewsHour, political scientist Martha Joynt Kumar ruled that out as unprecedented:

You don’t want a press secretary to be involved in policy, because if a press secretary is arguing policy, then, when he comes out and talks to reporters, reporters won’t know whether it’s the president’s policies that he’s talking about, the president’s thinking, or his own thinking. … White House staff are not going to talk to the press secretary if they think he has a particular policy agenda.

Obviously, the press secretary shouldn’t step to the podium and pronounce views that are directly at odds with the president’s. But press secretaries make policy all the time, simply because, unlike other policymakers in the White House, they have to answer questions all day long. Every sentence in the briefing room becomes official administration policy, which gives a press secretary ample leeway to influence its direction. If he throws a few extra qualifiers into the official talking points, he can turn a veto threat into a mild statement of disapproval. If he rolls his eyes or barely suppresses a giggle, he can wink at the press corps that today’s official position will be gone by tomorrow.

So, Professor Kumar has it backwards: If White House staff think Snow has a policy agenda, they won’t avoid him in the halls—they’ll do just the opposite and spend even more time talking to him to spin him their way.

Flacks and Hacks: Should a talking head make policy? Well, by Bush White House standards, Snow is perfectly qualified to have a senior policy role: He’s a political junkie with strong conservative views. Hacks haven’t had any trouble making their views known in this administration; the wonks who wanted a policy role are the ones who were shut out because they didn’t get in writing.

Moreover, as time and popularity run out for this administration, so do the stakes in its policy deliberations. Karl Rove cashed in his policy chips because he knew they weren’t worth much anymore. Senior officials aren’t nearly as turf-conscious when property values are plunging. If Snow wants to chime in, colleagues who might have tried to shut him out a few years ago will welcome his enthusiasm.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Friday, April 28, 2006

First Flack: Tony Snow piled up a lot of firsts in his first week as White House press secretary. He’s the first pundit to take the job, a talking head turned mouthpiece instead of the other way around. He’s reportedly the first press secretary to negotiate a policy role (but happily, did not have his agent demand a private dressing room). He’s the first disgruntled conservative to be won over by being given a place in the president’s inner circle. If only Bush had 10 million more job openings at the White House, his wayward base would be secure.

But with just a thousand days left in a lame-duck administration, Snow should strive to be more than just the answer to a Beltway trivia question. From his new platform, he has the chance and the talent to push the limits of another frontier – the English language.

Over the years, press secretaries have contributed much to the political lexicon. Ron Ziegler set the standard in another scandal-ridden second-term presidency, giving us cult classics like “third-rate burglary” and “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.” Until then, no one in politics had used “inoperative” since Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers: “It would therefore be destitute of a precise meaning, and inoperative from its uncertainty.”

I know Tony Snow, and he’s no Ron Ziegler. He’s smart, easy to like, and a good choice for the sequestered Bush White House.

But Snow’s background gives him the ideal combination of talents to make his way into the quotation books. Snow is not just aptronymonic, he is ambi-phonic – a man who has made a career as both a professional writer and a professional talker.

If you want to know how rare this combination is, try reading what Bill O’Reilly writes or listening to Kevin Phillips talk. The gift for gab that makes for easy listening in a talking head is usually grating in print, while literary pugilism can be annoyingly nasal on the air.

Failure to Launch: What do you get when you mix a Bush 41 speechwriter with a Sunday celebrity from Fox? Well, if Peggy Noonan and Terry Bradshaw had a grown son together, he might sound a lot like Tony Snow. To paraphrase Stevie Wonder, baloney and irony go together in perfect harmony.

It’s too early to predict whether these talents will combine for greatness or disaster. But so far, the results look promising. Asked by Cox News whether he would be frank with the president, Snow delivered this gem:

“They want people to express their opinions. You’re not coming here to drink the Kool-Aid. You’re coming here to serve the president. And at this particular juncture I think what you want is as much honest counsel as you can get.” 

In just four sentences, Snow managed to refer to himself in the first, second, and third person – even switching back and forth in the same sentence. When he said, “I think what you want is as much honest counsel as you can get,” he referred to the president in the second person and himself in the first person and (implicitly) the third. Even Yogi Berra couldn’t go from first to third on a single quote.

Obviously, this verbal dexterity will serve Snow well from the podium, where evasive action is often necessary. As his predecessor and fellow aptronym, Larry Speakes, once said, “I would dodge, not lie, in the national interest.”

Snowisms: Snow’s linguistic adventurism should also endear him to the Great Miscommunicator, George W. Bush. In the same way that pet owners eventually look like their dogs, press secretaries should learn to talk like their boss. Snow is off to a good start. He told Cox News, “So when I agree I’m going to agree but when I disagree I disagree. But on any opinion his vote is the tie-breaker.” Snow brings the Fox News motto to the White House: “We report. You the decider.”

From a linguistic standpoint, it’s hard not to marvel at what Snow told Brit Hume: “You never lie. You never try to shave the truth. But on the other hand, you’ve got to keep in mind the guy I’m working for is the president.” Once again, the quick downshift from second to first person. For good measure, a daring segue (he won’t lie, but on the other hand he is working for the Bush administration). And yet, like Bush, Bradshaw, and Berra, Snow somehow gets his point across even when his sentences don’t parse.

When Hume asked him whether he would use the podium to spar with the administration’s political opponents, like Mike McCurry, or avoid those battles, like Marlin Fitzwater, Snow said, “I’m probably more Fitzwaterian.”

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Strategery: In September 2000, George W. Bush was trailing Al Gore when the Clinton-Gore administration released part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in response to the rising price of gas and home heating oil. Bush called Gore a flip-flopping panderer. Here’s the Associated Press lede from Sept. 24, 2000:

George W. Bush, trying to slow Al Gore’s momentum and overcome discouraging polls, accused his rival on Saturday of engaging in “a disturbing pattern of embellishments and sudden reversals.”

“It was created for cases of war or a sudden disruption of America’s energy supply,” Bush said. “That’s why it’s called the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, not the Strategic Political Reserve.”

Gas prices have doubled since then, and Bush is once again trying to overcome discouraging polls—this time, by engaging in a disturbing pattern of sudden reversals. After six years of saying there was nothing a president could do about the problem, Bush has decided to suspend purchases for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Press reports let the flip-flop go, apparently concluding that when nobody’s fooled, it doesn’t count as a pander. Bush’s Strategic Political Reserve ran dry a long time ago.

Bush’s new chief of staff, Josh Bolten, must have felt a twinge of nostalgia during yesterday’s announcement. As campaign policy director, he was responsible for Bush’s gas-price talking points in 2000 as well. The Bush campaign got a political boost from promising not to play politics; now the Bush White House hopes for the same boost from taking the opposite position.

National Journal’s political tipsheet, “The Hotline,” reported yesterday, “Under the Bolten regime, expect to see far more X-point-plans and regular metric-tracking of said points. Bolten is a metric fan.” For the Bush White House, this is considered progress: So long as X>0, then X-point plans are better than none.

Iso-Metrics: The way the numbers are going, it’s hard to believe that any Bushie could remain a metric fan. But Bolten even has an X-point plan to raise Bush’s numbers.

In this week’s Time, Mike Allen spells out Bolten’s five-point “recovery plan”: 1) Reassure the base with more visuals at the border with agents carrying guns and wearing badges; 2) Make Wall Street happy, because (when they’re not watching gun-toting Border Patrol agents on TV) Republican base voters are investors; 3) “BRAG MORE”—nobody else will; 4) Regain credibility on security by convincing voters that Democrats will lose Iran, so they’ll forget who’s losing in Iraq; and 5) Court the press by hiring Tony Snow.

If you’re scoring at home, give Bolten the last point. As a ham with a sense of humor, Snow is a return to the Clinton model of press secretaries Mike McCurry and Joe Lockhart, who genuinely enjoyed playing cat-and-mouse with the White House press corps, and a departure from the just-shoot-me model of Scott McClellan and Ari Fleischer, two hostages who never learned to love their captors.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Friday, April 21, 2006

Wild Thing: Say this about Josh Bolten: He’s a reliever. On Wednesday, the president’s new chief of staff relieved Karl Rove of his policy-making duties. With less than subtle hints, he persuaded Scott McClellan to relieve himself of his Snow-job duties. All week long, Bolten has urged White House staff to pack their bags, relieving them of their loyalty duties. Today, the New York Times reports that he wants to relieve White House Counsel Harriet Miers of her has-been duties.

The banner headlines in yesterday’s Washington Post heralding Rove’s demotion suggest that this is how Washington spells relief. Here in the nation’s capital, scandal is the favorite spectator sport, and the current owners have done an excellent job of filling the seats this season. But whenever there’s a break in the action, Washington fans love the chance to watch a good, old-fashioned power struggle—especially when power is dwindling so there isn’t enough to go around.

By that standard, this week’s Kabuki is a good one. Scott McClellan lost the ability to snow the press long ago. If Harriet Miers has any responsibilities left, it’s only because she was the first loyalist Bush forced to walk the plank and withdraw her Supreme Court nomination.

In recent months, Karl Rove’s policy responsibilities have consisted of 1) trying not to go to jail; 2) trying not to get fired; and 3) making sure this year’s State of the Union didn’t propose any policies like the ones he put in last year’s. From the White House to the Congress, Republicans’$2 2006 game plan all along has been to not offer a national agenda. Rove’s job is to try to give voters what they want, which in this case is to relieve the Republicans of their policy responsibilities.

Here in Washington, the crowd roared its approval for taking Rove down a notch. The move gave all sides what they wanted: Congressional Republicans can take credit for the appearance of change; Democrats can keep trashing their favorite bogeyman and pointing out that nothing has changed; the White House can insist that from now on, Rove will spend every moment thinking about the elections, as if in his policy role he had ever thought about anything else.

Reality Show: There are two big problems with the Bush strategy. One trouble with insider power struggles is that the actors take them even more seriously than the fans. On Wednesday, Rove worked hard to spin the story of his own realignment. Despite his best efforts, the White House got the this-is-a-big-deal spin it wanted. Rove discovered what Democrats have said all along about the Ownership Society: You’re bound to end up with a smaller portfolio.

Today’s Miers story is stranger still. The Times article quotes “an influential Republican with close ties to Bolten” saying that pushing her out the door is “a reflection of Josh’s thinking.” Then it quotes the same Republican saying of the shake-up, “This is not Josh, this is Bush. … Bush is very good at using other people as a vehicle to get things done.” Then it reminds us that, as always, we never know who’s using whom: “It was not clear whether Mr. Bolten was floating a trial balloon to gauge White House reaction to the idea, or whether he might have been intending to send a signal to Ms. Miers that he would like her to think about leaving on her own.”

In a White House where Scooter Libby portrayed himself to the Times as a former congressional aide, “an influential Republican with close ties to Bolten” could be anyone from new Bolten deputy Joel Kaplan to President Bush to Josh Bolten himself. We can’t make out the source from here in the cheap seats, but we’re pretty sure it’s not Harriet Miers.