We were hoping he could speak at our editorial writers' convention here in Little Rock this coming September. We had him down tentatively and what mortal can make plans that aren't tentative? as the speaker for our final dinner. He'd have been perfect. Having been commentator andnewsmaker at different times in his career, he knew both sides of the street.
Tony Snow had worked his way through various editorial writing slots from the Greensboro (N.C.) Record to the Detroit News to the Washington Times before becoming a fixture on the nightly news as White House press secretary. You wouldn't have known it by his ever-boyish manner, but he'd been around.
Tony said he'd try to make it to Little Rock, even though we both knew the chances were iffy; he'd already taken a couple of leaves of absence to fight his cancer. But you could tell he meant it. No one ever heard Tony say anything he didn't mean, except perhaps in wry jest.
Recalling his last appearance here, he added that Little Rock would always hold a special place in his affections. Years ago he'd agreed to take part in an event at Wildwood, our local arts center in the woods. It was another one of those seminars on the Fourth Estate and Its Role in American Society. I can barely remember what was said (it was all duly eloquent) but I'll never forget Tony's standing there alongside Arkansas' own Richard S. Arnold, the greatest jurist never to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court since Learned Hand.
What a contrast: Judge Arnold, who had the demeanor, learning and moderation of a wise old man even when he was a young one all of which he carried with a light grace was standing there next to Tony, who would remain the very picture of Young America even while the cancer and chemo took their toll on his appearance but never on his spirit.
Game was the word for Tony, whether he was playing with his band or taking on his next gig in the news business. Editorials, syndicated columns, Fox News, the White House ... he'd done it all.
Tony almost didn't make it to Wildwood that day. His flight was late (of course) and we were afraid we'd have to start with our star attraction stuck somewhere in traffic on I-630. The audience was already filling the place and the sound checks had begun. This was going to be embarrassing.
But a call to Little Rock's finest got him a police escort and so our guest arrived, siren wailing, with whole seconds to spare. When he loped up to the mike with that DiMaggio stride, his face was brimming with the smile of a little boy who'd just gotten a ride on the biggest, brightest, reddest fire truck you'd ever seen. That was Tony never fazed, always Happy to Be Here, wherever Here happened to be at the moment. I was sweating; he wasn't.
Now he's gone. At 53. Colon cancer. The news, however expected, still shocks. For his name brings back one youthful image after another. It's like going through a family album or watching a homemade film taken long ago and marveling at how young the subjects were. The difference with Tony was that he stayed young.
The first picture of him is one of the faces around a conference table at the Poynter Institute, a journalistic think tank in St. Petersburg. It was a conference for young editorial writers, and Tony didn't have much to say. But there was an unmistakable something in his eyes that let you know he was sizing you up, taking everything in, and when it came time to write a few sample editorials, his were clearly the best of the crop. By far. He'd got it.
His pieces were bright, sharp, focused opinion, unmarred by the superfluous. He used facts the way a swimmer uses a diving board. He didn't confuse writing an editorial with delivering a lecture. Cant would have been as alien to him as pomp or prudery. Or ill will.
The next image of him is running along the beach at St. Petersburg, slowing his pace to let an older guy keep up but not making a point of it. His long, elegant stride was matched by an understated elegance in his manner. I must have chugged along behind him on early-morning runs through half a dozen cities wherever the editorial writers were meeting that year.
Tony Snow was one of those people you could count on. In good times and times not so good. He added to the joy of life, but he was there to share your grief, too, when the inevitable struck. As he wrote to me after a great loss, getting it just right, as Tony had a way of doing: "I will miss her, but with a smile."
Adept was the word for Tony. Writers usually make clumsy speakers, worse anchormen, and impossible spokesmen for politicians. Tony was adept at it all. He made whatever he touched human, and his was a humanness of a particular, upbeat, American kind. When he signed on to be George W. Bush's press secretary, I feared for him. I knew he could never be a flack.
As it turned out, he wasn't. He humanized even the most political spot in the world, taking on a Washington press corps that needed taking on. What a contrast with his bumbling predecessor, one Scott McClellan. When Tony Snow took over the White House briefing room, it was the difference between murky night and shining day, intelligent loyalty and whatever its opposite is. (No-talent opportunism?)
A polemicist himself, Tony knew all the little tricks of a low trade, and wouldn't let the usual suspects get away with any of them. Most impressive of all, he made friends of those he was refuting. The untouchable press, it turned out, was touched. For who wouldn't be charmed by Tony? Or recognize the substance under the charm?
Now he is gone. Much too early. But whenever we'd lost him, it would have been too early. Tony said it: We will miss him, but with a smile.