Tony Snow, the conservative commentator who brought a flashy, talk-show style of repartee to the job of White House press secretary under President Bush, died Saturday at a Washington hospital after a high-profile battle with colon cancer. He was 53.
Snow joined the Bush administration as press secretary in 2006, a year after he was diagnosed with cancer and his colon was removed. During his 16 months at the White House, he used the skills he had honed as a Fox News anchor and radio talk show host to become one of the strongest voices for an administration whose policies in Iraq and at home were losing popularity.
He re-energized the press room and reveled in the chance to joust with reporters as the cameras rolled. Snow also used his celebrity status, particularly among conservative voters, to become one of the Republican Party’s most popular draws at fundraisers and political rallies, raising eyebrows among some who thought the press secretary should stay closer to the podium and not engage in partisanship.
Bush, upon hearing news of Snow’s death Saturday, shared what an aide described as a “brief but sweet” phone conversation from Camp David with Snow’s wife, Jill.
“It was a joy to watch Tony at the podium each day,” the president said in a written statement. “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.”
Snow’s fight with cancer continued through his tenure at the White House. He learned in March 2007 that the disease had returned and had spread to his liver. Nevertheless, he returned to the podium several months later after treatment, his famously perfect hair a bit thinned and grayer, and offered himself as a symbol of perseverance and positive thinking.
“Why sit around and bemoan your fate?” he asked. “Go ahead and get in there and, while you’re at it, enjoy every moment that you’re alive.”
It was that attitude that led some friends and colleagues to say Saturday that they had expected Snow to beat the cancer, despite the odds. His mother had died of colon cancer when he was 17.
“He was so optimistic and positive that all of us followed his lead,” said Dana Perino, Snow’s successor as press secretary.
Snow arrived at a turbulent time in the Bush White House, in the wake of the president’s failed campaign to privatize Social Security and as Bush was struggling to defend his Iraq strategy amid ongoing violence there. He was, in many ways, a mirror image of his predecessor, Scott McClellan, who stuck closely to talking points and often appeared uncomfortable when journalists posed aggressive questions.
Snow had White House experience working as a speechwriter for Bush’s father. But as a non-Texan, he was a surprising addition to the senior staff of a president who had surrounded himself with longtime loyalists.
Snow transformed the mood in the White House briefing room. He also made frequent appearances on television and conservative radio talk shows as he tried to quell bitterness in the Republican base over Bush’s support for a plan to legalize millions of undocumented immigrant workers.
“He would relish a debate with Lou Dobbs on immigration, something I would shy away from because I don’t necessarily like the confrontation,” said Perino, referring to Snow’s willingness to take on the fervently anti-legalization CNN host.
Robert Anthony Snow was born June 1, 1955, in Berea, Ky. His father was a high school social studies teacher and administrator, and his mother was a nurse.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1977 at Davidson College, near Charlotte, N.C., and two years later joined the Greensboro Record in North Carolina. Snow quickly found a home on the editorial pages and went on to write for the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., and the Detroit News, where his column was nationally syndicated.
He joined the conservative Washington Times in the late 1980s until taking his speech-writing job for President George H.W. Bush in 1991.
For seven years, from 1996 to 2003, Snow was the familiar face of Sunday morning for Fox News as host of the network’s popular public affairs show.
He later was host of “The Tony Snow Show” on the radio. “He told me that radio was much more fun for him,” said fellow Fox News host Greta Van Susteren. “He could just interact with people more. With television, you’re just looking at a camera.”
On the radio and as a columnist, Snow offered biting criticism of Bush, calling him “impotent” as a leader and “something of an embarrassment” for conservatives.
But by the time he reached the White House press room, Snow was a star in the conservative movement. In the lead-up to the 2006 midterm elections, the GOP was looking for an advocate who could help excite the party base. “He was tailor-made for that job at that time,” said ABC’s Ann Compton, president of the White House Correspondents Assn.
Snow left the $168,000-a-year White House job last September, saying he had run out of money. He hit the lecture circuit and had signed on as an election-year commentator for CNN.
Compton remained in e-mail contact, and she said Snow was upbeat about his chances for recovery, writing last month that his latest health problems were a “bump in the road.”
On June 13, when Compton was traveling with Bush in Paris, she received an e-mail from Snow inquiring about legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas, who had been ill.
“If you are in touch with her, would you please pass on my love?” Snow wrote of Thomas, one of the press corps’ most outspoken war critics. “I think she knows how much she means to me, and to millions of others.”
Snow is survived by his wife, Jill; and their three children, Kendall, Kristi and Robbie.