WASHINGTON — Three months ago, when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) told a mostly black audience that Republicans were running the U.S. House like a "plantation," conservatives accused her of racial divisiveness. But no one put it quite like Tony Snow, the man President Bush has chosen to be his new press secretary. "Had she proceeded to distribute fried chicken and watermelon," Snow wrote, "she would have achieved perfect condescension."
It was vintage Snow: turning a routine shot at a liberal politician into a dance on thin ice. Linking fried chicken and watermelon to African Americans is something few public figures would dare to do no matter what point they were making.
His voice is quiet and authoritative. Even critics concede he has a talent for articulating policy issues and political philosophy. What has set Snow apart, however, is his penchant for making his points by walking close to the line in areas where others play it safe, including race.
In 1991, Snow, then a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, defended some ideas of Louisiana gubernatorial candidate David Duke at a time when Republicans were trying to distance themselves from the former Ku Klux Klan leader. Snow suggested that Duke was espousing some good conservative ideals, including family values and opposition to welfare dependency.
In 2001, Snow wrote a column defending another former klansman, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), for his use of a racial epithet.
As a conservative commentator, Snow's job was to be provocative and fire up the faithful. Sometimes that led him to level blunt criticism of Bush, whose policy agenda he recently derided as "listless." Snow also said his future boss appeared "impotent" in defending his presidential powers.
But how will Snow adapt those sharp-tongued skills to his new role at the White House, where his predecessor, Scott McClellan, seemed to make it his goal to appear as sedate and non-provocative as possible? Bush and his aides on Wednesday tried to put a positive spin on Snow's bluntness, offering his past words as evidence that the White House was not as averse to dissent, as critics had alleged.
"For those of you who have read his columns and listened to his radio show, he sometimes has disagreed with me," Bush said as he introduced Snow to a packed West Wing press room. "I asked him about those comments, and he said, 'You should have heard what I said about the other guy.' "
Asked if the White House had reviewed Snow's record of commentary as part of the vetting process, McClellan said: "He has strong views. That's a good thing."
For his part, Snow said he intended to continue expressing strong views.
"Look, they want people to express their opinions," he said. "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. So when I agree, I agree, and when I disagree, I disagree. But on any opinion his vote's the tie-breaker."
Snow deflected a question about his potential differences with Bush on Iraq and other issues. "The president's the guy who runs the place," he said. "So I'll speak for him and at some other point I'll speak for myself."
As early as Tuesday night, when rumors began circulating about Snow's appointment, Democrats began circulating e-mails detailing his history of controversial statements.
David Brock, head of the watchdog group Media Matters, said that Snow's record underscored a risk for the White House in picking a celebrity for a post that had traditionally been filled by a loyal foot soldier.
"It's all fair game because it's all on the record," Brock said. "But it makes him something of a target.... And it's counterproductive in terms of what the administration is trying to do here."
Snow's record of provocative treatment of racial subjects could become especially sensitive for GOP political strategists. They have worked to build alliances among African American voters and to offset the political damage from the government's faltering response to Hurricane Katrina, which affected blacks disproportionately.
Snow has a paper trail on that topic too. And his words do not exactly mesh with the past rhetoric of the president. Bush has spoken of the need to rebuild a "great American city." Snow, chastising Mayor C. Ray Nagin for his pledge to keep New Orleans a "chocolate" city, wrote this year that Nagin was "more an entertainment figure than a statesman, just as New Orleans now is more a theme park with a port than a city of consequence -- although both aspire to greater things in years to come."
One of the most frequently cited quotes in Democratic e-mails Wednesday was a 1991 comment by Snow, quoted by syndicated columnist Clarence Page, explaining why many conservatives might support Duke.