Tony Snow, Aide to Bush, Dies at 53
Published: July 13, 2008
WASHINGTON — Tony Snow, the conservative columnist and television commentator who relished sparring with reporters during a 17-month stint as President Bush’s press secretary, died on Saturday after struggling publicly and candidly with colon cancer. He was 53.
Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
Tony Snow during a press conference in October 2006.
With his tall, lanky frame, his head of thick gray hair (it thinned, but never disappeared, during chemotherapy) and his showman’s style, Mr. Snow, who joined the White House in April 2006, helped reinvigorate a press operation that many Republicans believed had been lacking. He loved serving at the White House, once calling it “the most exciting, intellectually aerobic job I’m ever going to have.”
Mr. Bush, whose father, the first President Bush, employed Mr. Snow as a speechwriter, learned of the death from his chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten.
“It was a joy to watch Tony at the podium each day,” the president said in a statement from Camp David, where he is spending the weekend. “He brought wit, grace and a great love of country to his work. His colleagues will cherish memories of his energetic personality and relentless good humor.”
Before becoming the chief spokesman for the president, Mr. Snow was a syndicated newspaper columnist and later a commentator for Fox News. He was also host of the network’s Sunday public affairs program “Fox News Sunday.”
At the White House, he turned the daily press briefing into something of a one-man show, challenging reporters’ questions and delivering hard-hitting answers, even when he was occasionally short on the facts. More than once, Mr. Snow was forced to apologize, as he did shortly after taking the job, when he erroneously said that Mr. Bush viewed embryonic stem cell research as murder.
“He’s velvet glove and iron fist,” Jim Axelrod, the CBS White House correspondent, once said in describing Mr. Snow.
Coming into the job, Mr. Snow had credibility with the news media because, as a commentator, he had often been critical of Mr. Bush. But the transition from pundit to mouthpiece proved a tad complicated for him, as he struggled to rein himself in.
“Tony Snow broke the mold — he was a completely different kind of press secretary,” said Ann Compton of ABC News, who has covered six presidents. “For one thing, he would give you his own opinion and you’d have to say, ‘Tony, wait, I asked what the president thought.’ ”
During the 2006 Congressional midterm campaign, Mr. Snow raised eyebrows by using his celebrity to raise money for Republican candidates — something that other press secretaries had declined to do for fear of seeming too partisan.
He also had a musical flair; he grew up playing the flute, taught himself the acoustic guitar and played in an amateur rock ‘n’ roll band, Beats Workin’. When they performed at the White House Congressional picnic, Mr. Bush jokingly called them “a bunch of, well, mediocre musicians.”
Ms. Compton, who had been in touch with Mr. Snow in recent months, said his condition took a turn for the worse after the White House correspondents’ dinner in April. “He had a front-row seat and he looked wonderful” at the event, she said.
But he later e-mailed her to say that he had been suffering intestinal problems — “a bump in the road,” she said he called it — and that he was having a harder time than expected recovering. On June 13, while traveling in Paris with Mr. Bush, Ms. Compton received another unexpected message from Mr. Snow, who by then was quite sick, she said.
He had heard that Helen Thomas, the 87-year-old veteran White House correspondent with whom he had had some pointed exchanges, was ill. “If in touch, would you please pass on my love,” Mr. Snow wrote.
Mr. Snow died at 2 a.m. Saturday at Georgetown University Hospital here, according to Fox News Channel, his former employer. “If God needs a press secretary, he’s got a good one,” Roger Ailes, president of the channel, said a few hours later on “Fox & Friends.”
Robert Anthony Snow was born in Berea, Ky., on June 1, 1955, and grew up in Cincinnati. After graduating from Davidson College in North Carolina in 1977, he spent his early career in print journalism, writing editorials. He eventually was the editorial page editor of The Washington Times.
In 1991, he left newspapers to join the first Bush administration. During the Clinton administration, he went back into journalism, and he was the first host of “Fox News Sunday” from 1996 to 2003. He was the host of a Fox News radio show when he was brought in by the current administration to replace Scott McClellan as press secretary.
Mr. Snow often said that he felt stalked all his adult life by the threat of colon cancer; his mother died of the disease when he was 17. By the time he joined the White House, he had already been treated for it; in 2005 he received a diagnosis of Stage 3 colon cancer, meaning the disease had spread to the lymph nodes but not to other organs. At that time, he underwent surgery to have his colon removed.
When he joined the White House, he said he believed that he had beaten his cancer but knew it could return. At his first briefing, he wore a yellow bracelet from the Lance Armstrong Foundation “because I had cancer last year,” he said, choking back tears.
The cancer recurred in March 2007, less than a year after Mr. Snow took the White House job. He underwent surgery again, took five weeks off, and returned. But he announced in September 2007 that he was resigning his $168,000 a year job — not because of the cancer, he said, but because he wanted to make more money to support his family.
He is survived by his wife, Jill, and their three children, Kendall, Robbie and Kristi, who live in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington.
Dana Perino, who succeeded Mr. Snow as press secretary, said he was the inspiration for her 2008 New Year’s resolution, which was always to take her husband’s telephone calls, no matter how busy she was. “We learned a lot from him — most importantly how we should love our families and treat one another,” she said. “The White House has lost a great friend.”
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