The Oval: Can Tony Snow Get Bush’s Message Out?

It was all smiles in the White House briefing room Wednesday as George Bush introduced his new press secretary, Fox News commentator Tony Snow, to an excitable press corps. But Snow knows this isn’t a happy situation he’s walking into, even though his predecessor Scott McClellan was beaming at the cameras as the president walked in. After all, Snow knows just what it’s like to be in McClellan’s position.

In 1991, Snow gave up his job as editor of The Washington Times editorial page to head up the first President Bush’s troubled speechwriting operation. A year later, during Bush’s re-election campaign, Snow was forced out. Looking back on the experience, three years later, Snow sounded rueful. When President Clinton hired former U.S. News editor Don Baer in a similar shake-up, Snow offered some insight into his own experience as a journalist turned White House staffer. “I’ve been in this movie,” Snow told National Journal. “He’s stepping out of a nice secure journalism job to run an embattled speechwriting shop at the White House.” Snow offered some blunt advice to Baer. “Make sure you have plenty of high-ranking defenders,” he told the magazine. “When things go bad at the White House, the first person they come looking for is the speechwriter. The policy is never bad.” While Snow isn’t being hired as a speechwriter, he’s walking back into the lion’s den. The White House press operation has been under fire for months, particularly from congressional Republicans who say administration officials haven’t been effective in talking about the war, the economy and other policy issues. As a key public face of the White House, McClellan felt the brunt of much of that criticism, as some GOP officials complained that the White House’s strained relationship with reporters wasn’t helpful in helping Bush regain much-needed momentum this second term. Others called for a complete shake-up of the entire press operation and communications staff. On Wednesday, Snow’s appointment, which had been rumored for days, got positive reviews by Republicans on the Hill, including from one senior GOP leadership aide who told NEWSWEEK it was “great news.” “He’ll give some good outside-the-box thinking for the White House,” said the Republican aide, who declined to be quoted by name so as not to upset other administration officials. “He also may be a bull in a china shop. It will be fun to watch him at the podium.” In some respects, Snow’s pick was a no-brainer for an administration. The Fox News pundit has already been a go-to guy for administration officials to get their message out. Vice President Dick Cheney has been a frequent guest on Snow’s radio show, most recently in March when he phoned in a defense of the administration’s handling of national-security issues and the war. When congressional Republicans were in open revolt over the Dubai Ports World deal, Karl Rove called into Snow’s program to dial back Bush’s threat to veto legislation that would block the deal. Yet Democrats offered a curious reaction to Snow’s appointment. On one hand, some Democrats billed the Fox News analyst as someone who had already been an unofficial messenger of White House talking points. “Truth Still Snowed in at the White House,” declared a Wednesday-morning press release from the Democratic National Committee. At the same time, Democrats also flooded reporters with e-mails citing Snow’s public criticism of Bush and the White House--including excerpts from a recent syndicated column in which Snow described the president’s domestic policy as “listless” and that Bush’s “wavering conservatism” and his decision not to fight back against Democrats was “something of an embarrassment.” In announcing his pick of Snow, Bush acknowledged he was aware of his new press secretary’s public gripes, telling reporters,  “I asked him about those comments, and he said, ‘You should have heard what I said about the other guy'.” By embracing someone outside his Texas inner circle, Bush suggested that he is also hearing complaints that he needs fresh advice. Indeed, Snow made it publicly clear that if he took the job he would do so only if he could take a seat within Bush’s inner circle and have the ability to shape policy. “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,” Snow said in an interview with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly last Thursday. “You become part of something that’s very rare, which is an inner White House circle where you’ve got to make decisions.” Citing the difficulties of being the president’s spokesman, Snow said, “That has [a] sort of perverse attraction, which is it’s a meaty substantive job with real responsibilities.” One GOP official privy to the negotiations told NEWSWEEK that Snow had pressed administration officials for a job that extended beyond simply being Bush’s guy behind the podium and had successfully argued for increased access to the president. Additionally, Snow also argued for and won the ability to make staffing decisions within the press office, including the ability to hire or fire staffers. “He won’t be a lightweight,” said the Republican official, who declined to be named. The Oily Slope

George W. Bush has traveled many long roads since he entered the Oval Office in January 2001. But few are quite so long as his personal journey on the energy issue--arguably the single subject he and his veep know more about than anyone else in their administration. In 2000 Bush campaigned against Al Gore’s green-tinged policies by lampooning them, suggesting that hybrid vehicles were some kind of alien life form. Now the president tours hybrid-vehicle facilities like they are a second home, laying out his vision for a nation of electric- and hydrogen-powered cars. This isn’t, as some critics have suggested, a superficial move: Bush is sold on the new technologies of the auto industry. But that’s not Bush’s only reversal on energy. This week’s four-point plan on gas prices marked the end of another of the president’s signature positions. In 2000, he campaigned as a Reagan-style free-marketer who opposed what he saw as the regulatory excesses of the Clinton years. Reagan wanted to get government off the back of business. This week Bush urged his own Justice Department to get on the back of the oil industry, launching an investigation into possible market collusion or price-fixing of gasoline. Such investigations are notoriously difficult, and the bar is high when it comes to litigation. In the early 1980s, the Justice Department sued American Airlines’ Robert Crandall for his attempt to raise prices together with his counterpart at Braniff Airlines. Crandall was secretly tape-recorded as he phoned Braniff, saying that if the company raised its prices by 20 per cent, “I’ll raise mine in the morning.” It would be hard to come up with a clearer attempt to manipulate prices, but the lawsuit ended with a slap on the wrist: Crandall merely agreed to stop having such conversations about fares. In the case of the oil industry, there’s no suggestion of behavior like that. When asked if there were any suspicions of market manipulation, the outgoing White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan came up with nothing. “It’s important to make sure that there’s not any price gouging,” he simply stated. In fact, President Bush has repeatedly explained why gas prices are high for a host of reasons other than price gouging. “We live in a global marketplace, and when the demand for crude oil goes up in China or India, fast-growing economies, if the corresponding supply doesn't meet that demand, the price of gasoline is going to go up here in America,” he told an audience in West Sacramento, Calif., on Earth Day last weekend. “The American people have got to understand what happens elsewhere in the world affects the price of gasoline you pay here.” President Bush is of course feeling the intense political pressure of high gas prices, which his aides have blamed for a steady decline in his approval numbers for the last 15 months. That pressure led to another energy reversal this week, as Bush fiddled with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Bush dismissed as a political stunt Bill Clinton’s release of oil from the reserve in 2000, and he repeated the same charge against John Kerry in 2004. This week, he followed Clinton and Kerry with an even less significant move--suspending shipments to the reserve. What does Tony Snow think of the price-gouging story? Not much. Speaking to Bill O’Reilly last week, Snow rejected his fellow pundit’s protests about price gouging and about excessive pay for oil executives. Snow said gas prices were high because of “jitters about the stability of the Middle East.” As for the role of oil executives in setting gas prices, Snow insisted it was irrelevant. “The fact is, it doesn’t matter who’s running these companies,” he told O’Reilly. “As long as you’ve got $70 a barrel oil, you’re going to be paying that price.”

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