The Magazine

From Newsroom to White House

Tony Snow, 1955-2008.

Jul 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 43 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Tony Snow was two years out of college when he got his first job in journalism. I was editor of the editorial page of the Greensboro Record, the afternoon daily in Greensboro, N.C., and I needed an editorial writer. Tony applied for the job. He had no "clips" as such, but the several pieces of writing he submitted showed he could compose a decent sentence. That, together with the fact that his references spoke highly of his character, persuaded me to hire him. Even so, I had no idea whether he could write on deadline, though he was confident he could. Nor was it clear where he would fall politically. I sensed that during his time at Davidson College he had been attracted to some left-wing causes but that now he was taking a fresh look at the world.

Tony's interests turned out to be more literary and philosophical than political. Public policy often bored him. But he figured out how to write editorials, and on deadline, and his pieces fit well enough into our conservative page. He learned to lay out pages, and he wrote a few reviews for the morning paper, the Greensboro Daily News (which eventually absorbed the Record). One summer I sent Tony to the newsroom so he could have the experience of actually reporting stories. He was learning the business, as they say, and in 1981, when I went to Norfolk to edit the editorial page of our parent company's flagship paper, the Virginian-Pilot, I hired Tony a second time.

I think it was while he was in Norfolk that Tony, who had considered other lines of work, decided to stick with newspapers. He became a student of politics and wrote editorials informed by solid reporting. And he was a reliable deputy. Inevitably, another paper--the one across the bay in Newport News--asked him to be its editorial page editor. The Detroit News hired him next, and then, in 1987, the Washington Times made him its editorial page editor, his fifth newspaper job in eight years.

While at the Times, Tony began doing radio and television. His visibility as a conservative was such that he came to the attention of the first Bush White House and eventually was hired as chief speechwriter. When he went back to journalism, Tony wrote a syndicated column and did a lot of television and radio, along with as many speeches as he could. He developed one of those multimedia careers that seem to thrive in the nation's capital.

It was in the early '90s that Rush Limbaugh began using Tony when he needed a substitute. I think that was a turning point in his career. Exposed to Limbaugh's huge, nationwide audience, Tony gained his own following. In political terms, he acquired a base. When Fox News Channel was launched in 1996, it needed to attract an audience and asked Tony to anchor its Sunday morning talk show. He was the obvious choice.

In 2003 Fox moved Tony out of that job. The rap was that he didn't press hard enough in interviews. Fox gave him less compelling assignments but also a radio show. Tony had thought for some time that he'd eventually have his own show, but he never expected to get it this way. It was a setback, but he didn't complain about it. Here, as throughout his career, he had confidence that something better would open up for him. And so it did in 2006 when he became White House press secretary.

Tony loved the job. It was his greatest achievement, as jobs go. And, learning from some early bumps in the road, he was very good at it. Indeed, he redefined the position, drawing on his experiences in both old and new media to serve the White House press corps and President Bush. He had credibility with the press, and he could intelligently argue the administration's case. It's too bad Bush didn't think to hire Tony in 2001.

Tony broke with what might be called White House press secretarial precedent by being the featured speaker at GOP fundraisers. He had that kind of star power. He might well have become a politician. You could easily imagine him running for high office. But, as he knew, that would have been a merely earthly ambition.

When I first met Tony, he was not an unbeliever, but he was not exactly a churchman, either. In the '90s, when his career was taking off, his interest in ultimate things intensified. He told me several times about the books he was reading, which included titles by C.S. Lewis. His Christian faith began to deepen.

Looking back, you could say he was being prepared to deal with the colon cancer that was discovered in 2005 and took his life the week before last. His mother had died of the same disease when he was 17. Tony told Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post that the ghost of colon cancer had stalked him from the time she died until the time he got it.