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THE NATION

Snow and Media Get Off to Frosty Start

The new White House press secretary tries to make his first briefing for reporters casual, but it quickly turns chaotic and contentious.

May 13, 2006|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Tony Snow brewed a pot of coffee for his guests. He abandoned his jacket for shirt sleeves and a tie.

For his first briefing as the White House press secretary, an off-camera morning ritual called the "gaggle," Snow invited the press corps to leave the formality of the briefing room for the intimacy of his private West Wing office.

But the man who had promised to put a friendly, open face on President Bush's press relations soon found himself swamped by the realities of present-day Washington: The White House is at the center of so many controversies that its daily conversation with the press is likely to remain confrontational, even if an affable celebrity commentator is the one talking on behalf of the president.

In a chaotic and contentious first outing -- a dress rehearsal of sorts for his first televised briefing Tuesday -- Snow was asked about the Bush administration's domestic spying program, about the reports that it had collected vast data on Americans' phone-calling habits and whether all this would sink Bush's nominee for CIA director.

Snow said he either could not or did not want to answer many of the questions, much in the same way his predecessor, Scott McClellan, used repetitious talking points to deflect increasingly aggressive queries from the news media.

To make matters worse, Snow's roomy office turned out to be too small to accommodate the more than 60 reporters in attendance.

"I had this wonderful idea that this would be nice and collegial and relaxed," Snow conceded in his office, throwing up his hands and looking almost defeatist. "But it obviously at this point is just a mess."

The daily encounter with journalists, Snow found, is likely to be a far cry from the talk radio and TV gabfests that he had presided over until recently as a Fox News commentator.

The day marked the first time that Snow was speaking directly on behalf of the president, whom Snow had criticized in his former life as appearing "impotent" and pursuing a "listless" agenda.

Republicans hope Snow will improve the White House's ability to promote its message, but the events since he began easing into the job last week show the magnitude of the challenge.

A week ago came the surprise resignation -- under pressure -- of CIA Director Porter J. Goss. This week, there were new reports of visits to the White House by Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist.

And Thursday, a furor erupted over a report that the National Security Agency has been building a database of records of millions of domestic phone calls.

All this comes as the White House contends with burgeoning ethics scandals on Capitol Hill; heightened speculation over the legal fate of Bush advisor Karl Rove; and polls showing that Bush's approval rating has plummeted to 31%, among the lowest of any president in modern times.

How will Snow restore credibility to the White House? he was asked by veteran correspondent Helen Thomas.

"I'm not going to answer questions about credibility, other than to say that I'm eager to be here and I'm happy to be working with you," Snow said.

Years of broadcast experience, Snow quickly learned, are not necessarily preparation for having a person's every word scrutinized.

When reporters asked about Bush's support for his housing secretary, who made recent controversial comments, Snow replied, "Well, at this point the president is supporting Alphonso Jackson."

"At this point?" a reporter asked, wondering if Snow was tossing out a hint. In fact, as with several topics facing the new press secretary, he conceded that he simply did not have the full picture.

"Look," he said, "again, you're getting me ahead of my brief. I don't know any more than I've told you."

Then there was the exchange over a report that the Department of Justice had closed its inquiry into a controversial NSA domestic eavesdropping program because investigators were denied security clearance.

First, Snow asked a deputy to take the question, acknowledging that he did not know enough to answer. When some reporters couldn't hear the deputy's answer, Snow picked up a piece of paper and, with apologies, read straight from a list of talking points.

Snow kept his good humor even while confessing ignorance. "I will apologize as the new kid on the block," he told a Russian journalist inquiring about his country's entry into the World Trade Organization. "For today, I'm not going to handle international issues or currency issues. I do not wish to set off global tempests, because I, frankly, just don't know enough on those."

Snow has a good excuse for any lack of expertise. His quick start on the job stands in sharp contrast to the gradual learning curve of his predecessors. Joe Lockhart, for instance, had served as a deputy press secretary to President Clinton, but still he took two months to rehearse and bone up on the issues before taking the podium as press secretary.

Snow, whose appointment was announced April 26, took time to talk to most of his living predecessors in the job.

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