As rancor grows between press and the White House, the late Tony Snow shines as a model of civility
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Something foreign to today’s viewers of White House press briefings happened in the winter of 2006: A White House official and a member of the media establishment behaved like responsible stewards of the republic and treated each other with respect. But before that, there was a prize fight.

It was a tough time to be the White House spokesman. Then-President George W. Bush himself described it as part of “the worst time in my presidency, period” in a November 2010 interview. Tension between the presidency and the press corps covering it was high. Iraq was at the center of that tension and where it most often manifested itself. One question from a seasoned correspondent touched a nerve.

The Iraq Study Group released its landmark report, accompanied by a statement from its co-chairman, former Congressman Lee Hamilton. It provided a basis for just the type of question that White House reporters — especially those eager to make an on-camera splash — love to ask.

David Gregory: On the evaluation in the report it says the following — the co-chairs say the following: "'Stay the course' is no longer viable. The current approach is not working. The situation is grave and deteriorating." Chairman Hamilton says he is not sure whether the situation can be turned around. Can this report be seen as anything other than a rejection of this President's handling of the war?

Typical fare from a press corps considered hostile to the administration. Tony spent the next few minutes articulating the administration’s view. Then he threw a punch.

Tony Snow: But you need to understand that trying to frame it in a partisan way is actually at odds with what the Group, itself, says it wanted to do…

GREGORY: I just want to be clear. Are you suggesting that I'm trying to frame this in a partisan way?

SNOW: Yes.

The reaction was immediate and it was fierce. Headlines on conservative blogs celebrated a “Smackdown at the White House.” One outlet wrote, “Tony Snow has changed the rules of the daily briefing. No longer will the president's media representative hem and haw while being attacked by leftist reporters.” White House operators reported to me that callers loved watching Tony hit back. In the eyes of the base, Tony was a hero for showing the media establishment who was boss. The initial take was, “keep punching.”

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Then something changed.

 

I noticed the Gregory Incident began to slowly bother Tony. The more he was congratulated, the more uncomfortable he became. Fans weren't commenting on the strength of his argument. They were congratulating him for calling a fellow professional a dirty word. It gnawed at him. And integrity and principle quickly overcame ego.  


Days later, with all of the cameras rolling, and with the eyes and ears of the world on him, Tony took a question from Mr. Gregory. Before he answered, this is what he said:

TONY SNOW: Before I get to that, I want to address something else. Because you and I had a conversation last week that got a whole lot of play in a lot of places, where I used the term “partisan” in describing one of your questions.

And I’ve thought a lot about that, and that I was wrong. So I want to apologize and tell you I’m sorry for it.

And the reason I do that is not only because it’s the right thing, but because I want people in this room and also people who watch these to understand that the relations in this room are professional and collegial.

And if I expect you to do right by us, you have every right to expect that I’ll do right by you.

Such a small slight led to such a grand apology because Tony understood three things: (1) Our institutions matter more than we do; (2) People matter too; (3) Respect for both is the oil in the pistons if you want to make real progress rather than claiming activity as success.

Tony Snow was no pushover. He understood the biases in the media establishment. But from the podium, he represented the president and the presidency. On the other side of the podium, the reporter represented the freedom to hold the peoples’ representatives to account. He saw beyond the immediate praise of people who already agreed with him and understood that being the bigger man was the best course in the long term.

And I always suspected he had something else even more important in mind. His three children were watching.

“And if I expect you to do right by us, you have every right to expect that I’ll do right by you.” Looking back at that and seeing where we are today, I think those are the most important words Tony ever spoke from that podium. That sentence needs to be considered by every leader in Washington before they make a statement, and by every American before we type away on our social media pages.

David Gregory offered his view on the matter in a September 2015 interview on Fox News Radio, “I think [the apology] just began a kind of respect between us.”

We don’t hear enough of that today. This isn’t just a matter of good versus bad manners. It’s a matter of practicality.

A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that seven in 10 Americans believe the level of civility in Washington has worsened. Once civility goes the way of the dinosaurs, any hope of accomplishing things to make the lives of Americans better becomes harder to the point of improbable.

July 12 marks the ninth anniversary of Tony Snow’s passing. We need leaders like him now more than ever. Brilliant, informed, and reasonable. Passionate, argumentative, but never disrespectful. We need to heed this advice: Spend some time getting to know Tony Snow again, and see how a true gentleman served a worthy nation.  


Edward Buckley served as the executive assistant and aide to White House press secretary Tony Snow from 2006-2007.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.