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Fox Commentator Named Bush's Press Secretary

The sometimes critical conservative's selection is seen as a move to help the White House image.

April 27, 2006|James Gerstenzang and Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Bush appointed Fox News commentator Tony Snow as his press secretary Wednesday, signaling that in its final 1,000 days, his White House plans significant changes in the way it reaches the American people.

Before taking the job, Snow -- who was a speechwriter in the George H.W. Bush administration -- sought and was given "walk-in" privileges in the Oval Office and the chief of staff's office, according to a veteran Republican advisor who asked not to be named because his conversation with Snow was confidential. That would make Snow one of the few officials with unscheduled access to the president and Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten.

The arrangement could be helpful as Snow, 50, attempts to build trust with a White House press corps that had an adversarial relationship with his predecessor and as he tries to help Bush recover from low public approval ratings.

Bush presented Snow on Wednesday morning as his choice to replace Scott McClellan.

"My job is to make decisions," Bush said, "and his job is to help explain those decisions to the press corps and the American people.... He's going to work hard to provide you with timely information about my philosophy, my priorities and the actions we're taking to implement our agenda."

Snow's appointment was unusual for a White House that has prized loyalty and long-standing relationships with Bush. He has worked for Fox for the last decade, and has criticized Bush -- calling him "impotent" and "something of an embarrassment" in recent commentary.

He also is the first outsider given a top position during the White House shake-up engineered by Bolten, who has been chief of staff for less than two weeks. But Snow's selection fits a historical pattern.

At low moments in their terms, other presidents have sought to bolster their credibility by hiring press secretaries seen less as administration loyalists than as independent operators with their own authority and stature.

Suggesting that Snow would present himself as the latter, Tom Rosenstiel -- director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonprofit group that studies the media -- said: "One thing we know is that Tony Snow has to eat lunch in this town again. He is going to serve the president, but not sacrifice his reputation while he's doing it."

Moments after Bush introduced him, Snow walked through the White House press briefing room, pledging to work with reporters -- "to figure out what you think we can do better."

"It's clear they are bringing in someone to do better marketing," said David Gergen, a former White House communications aide for both Republican and Democratic presidents who now is a professor of public service at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "Whether they are bringing in someone to bring more complete information to the public is very much an open question."

Snow, who is expected to take over in the next two or three weeks, will be Bush's third press secretary. McClellan succeeded Ari Fleischer in July 2003.

The new spokesman brings a "fresh perspective" because he did not serve during the administration's first five years, said Kenneth M. Duberstein, who took a senior position in the White House at a similarly challenging moment -- as President Reagan sought to emerge from the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987.

But, Duberstein said, the question remains whether Snow can overcome the Bush administration's aversion to outsiders and get information from the White House that he will need to be an effective spokesman.

Most fundamentally, the appointment of a prominent media figure may indicate that the White House is focused on shaping the way Bush is portrayed in the mainstream media.

Many analysts agree that this White House has appeared less concerned than previous administrations about influencing newspapers and network television -- placing greater emphasis on reaching its core conservative supporters through such outlets as talk radio and cable TV.

They said that the appointment of an accomplished TV personality reflected a White House conclusion that -- with fewer than 40% of the voters approving of Bush's performance -- it needs to win over a broader segment of the population through the traditional national news media.

"What they've done before is use their back-channel media to get their message out to their base supporters .... And when times were good and bills were passing and things were going well, there was less of a concern of dealing with the mainstream media overall," said a senior Republican congressional aide who was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject and requested anonymity. "Now it becomes critical that they apply a different strategy ... on a daily basis, and they have chosen a guy who can do that."

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