Oval: Tony Snow's Artful Dodging

How different is the shiny new White House Press Secretary Tony Snow compared to his jaded predecessor Scott McClellan?

After more than two weeks inside the West Wing, Snow has pulled off the unusual coup of improving relations with the press corps while offering, at times, less information than McClellan. He has also managed to win widespread forgiveness for a series of foreign-policy fumbles that would have landed McClellan in deep trouble.

How has Snow won over the press corps? Take a look at the toughest of his customers: Helen Thomas, one of the longest-serving reporters at the White House, and--in the opinion of administration officials--one of the most hostile.

During Tuesday afternoon’s press briefing, Thomas was grilling Snow on what role, if any, the United States was playing in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over a two-state peace deal. Snow told Thomas that Washington was operating “the same as it’s always been” and was working with Israel and “when possible” with the Palestinians.

“Then why is it bankrupting the Palestinians?” Thomas shot back.

Snow clutched the side of the podium. “The Palestinians are not being bankrupted, Helen,” Snow said, smiling. “Hamas is a terrorist organization. We do not give money to terrorist organizations.”

“They were democratically elected,” Thomas insisted.

“They were democratically elected, and they’re still a terrorist organization,” Snow replied.

“By your designation,” Thomas snapped.

“Yes, thank you very much, Helen,” Snow shot back.

That could have been a scene straight out of one of Scott McClellan’s combative press briefings, if it weren’t for what happened next. From the podium, Snow looked down at Thomas sitting in her front-row seat and noticed the veteran reporter was clutching a shiny red apple.

“By the way, that’s a nice apple,” Snow grinned.

“Here,” Thomas instantly replied, offering the new press secretary her apple.

As the press room erupted in laughter, Snow dramatically leapt from the podium and grabbed the apple, placing it front and center on the lectern. “Whoever thought that Helen Thomas would kiss up to me,” Snow said, laughing. “An apple for the teacher.”

“Hardly!” Thomas shouted from the front row. But she was smiling--and so was every other reporter in the room.

Indeed, there’s been a lot of smiling and plenty of jokes and laughter during the first two weeks of Snow’s tenure as Bush’s new press guy. The atmosphere in the briefing room, which only weeks ago seemed poisonous beyond repair, now seems relaxed and different enough to compensate for the fact that reporters don’t seem to be getting any more straightforward answers than before.

Snow has openly dodged questions on everything from the NSA wiretaps to immigration reform--all the while admitting to reporters that he’s doing so. Perhaps the most artful dodge has been Snow’s tendency to say “I don’t know”--a phrase that has been cited dozens of times in the last several briefings.

It’s not unreasonable to think that Snow can and should only stick to the facts that he knows. But it’s interesting to see how Snow has offered noncomments on issues where he should be fully up to speed. In some cases, Snow has been even less forthcoming than McClellan about what Bush and his advisers are doing.

Last week, Snow repeatedly declined to comment on even the most basic information that used to be easily confirmed with the White House. When border-state governors, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, complained that Bush had not consulted with them about his plan to deploy National Guard troops along the border, Snow at first declined to comment on whether the president had phoned the governors at all. “I’m not going to engage in on deliberations,” Snow told reporters. When asked if Bush spoke to any members of Congress about his plan, Snow echoed his earlier remarks. “I’m not going to get into what the president did or did not do,” he said. The new press secretary later admitted that he just didn’t know if Bush consulted with the governors or not--but still declined to comment, though he said he knew “for a fact” there had been “staff contact.”

During McClellan’s reign at the White House, it was typical for the administration to put out information about the president’s daily schedule, including meetings with members of Congress or phone calls between the president and lawmakers. No doubt part of that strategy was to stamp out accusations that relations between Bush and Congress are shaky, but it was also being practical. When lawmakers come to see Bush at the White House, they drive up the West Driveway--past so-called pebble beach, where TV reporters do their stand-ups and right outside the press briefing room. In other words, it was no secret.

But for the past two weeks, Snow hasn’t put out such information and has declined to comment on such events--even though the meetings have obviously continued.  On Tuesday, a group of congressional Republicans, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, met at the White House with Bush. The subject: immigration reform--a fact confirmed only when lawmakers who attended the meeting told reporters about it after the fact. Asked about the president’s message during the meeting, House Majority Leader John Boehner told reporters, “It wasn’t any different than everybody’s heard before.”

More startling is Snow’s readiness to plunge into the realm of foreign policy when he seems unfamiliar with some basic details, including some of the most frequently repeated positions of the White House itself.

When asked about a possible military strike on Iran, Snow stumbled over one of the president’s most common statements on the subject. Snow was lobbed a softball question suggesting that “nothing is off the table” in terms of military action.

His reply: “We’ve always said that.” But then he continued, “Let me put it this way: The use of force is off the table. All right? Let me be specific. That is what the president has said. Is that not correct?”

Er, not quite. As reporters and White House staff started to shake their heads, Snow plunged back in. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Is not off the table. Thank you. Yes, it’s on the table.”

That wasn’t the only problem for Snow. With Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the White House, Snow managed to mangle the names of the main players on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At his morning off-camera briefing, Snow repeatedly called the Palestinian president “Prime Minister Abbas.” In fact, the prime minister, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, is the sworn enemy of Israel and the United States. Later Snow mangled Abbas’s nickname, Abu Mazen, when asked about the administration’s assessment of his power. “I'm not going to get into whether the president is going to talk about … Abu Mazen, Abu Abbas, whatever you want to call him,” Snow said. For good measure, Snow promoted the Israeli prime minister’s position to “President Olmert.”

Snow started out with good intentions. At his first off-camera briefing earlier this month, he said he wasn’t going to deal with questions on foreign affairs or currency, because of one simple reason. “I do not want to set off global tempests,” he said, “because I frankly just don’t know enough on those.” It sounds like he was right first time.

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