So I was watching a speech the other day. The speaker had an interesting biography. He grew up in the heartland. He made his mark through decades of promulgating his own, deeply thought-out political views. He researched and wrote his own position papers. He earned his living on radio, and in print, and in front of a camera. In a media world full of cynics, he was well known for his geniality, his approachability, his generosity of spirit.
The speaker served in two different terms in the White House. In the second term, people were a bit concerned, at first, about how a bout with colon cancer would affect him.
Oh — and his speeches, including the one I watched the other day, were things to behold. Inspirational. Humorous. Direct and plain-spoken. A paean to free markets, and a clarion call to spread freedom around the globe. Infused with a palpably genuine love of these United States, a sense that this country, our country, is special: forward-looking, energetic, moral, a force for good.
But this wasn’t a videotape of Ronald Reagan that I was watching. It was White House press secretary Tony Snow, speaking live to the closing luncheon of the National Review Institute’s “Conservative Summit.”
And Snow was, to put it simply, magnificent.
He spoke about how tremendously well the American economy is doing. He spoke about how brave and effective our soldiers and Marines in Iraq are. He spoke about how freedom triumphs where given a chance, using current day Vietnam — Vietnam! — as an example. He spoke at great length about President George W. Bush’s new health-care proposal, in terms both easily understandable and also personal (mentioning, but not dwelling on, his battle, apparently now won, with cancer). On that subject, he talked about what it’s like to visit a doctor these days, and about how much more power a patient would have to demand more personal and considerate service if the patients themselves, rather than disembodied insurance companies, made the decisions on the demand-side of the equation.
And when he took questions from the audience, every answer struck the perfect note — even when he felt he had to gently but firmly upbraid one lady who asked him, in effect, to agree that another department at the White House was doing a poor job. (Snow, with a kind tone of voice that softened the words, said something like this: “With all due respect, that’s not an appropriate question to ask me. I’m the White House press secretary. It’s not right even to ask me to go there.”)
Throughout the entire speech and Q&A afterward, Snow held the whole audience spellbound. As soon as he was done, one lady at my table leaned over to me and said: “Now he’s the one who should be running for president next time around.”
If the current primary system, with its emphasis on crazily early money and early organizing, weren’t so outlandish, the idea actually makes at least some sense.
THE FACT IS THAT CONSERVATIVES have been desperately searching for a champion who knows how to communicate, how to engage and inspire the public, ever since Reagan left the scene. What has been missing in the interim is not merely some acquired skill or a trick of communicating, but a communications talent that is married to a genuine, heartfelt, long-developed set of beliefs. It’s the marriage of communication with philosophy that is needed; one without the other won’t do. Snow is clearly genuine: Never having needed to troll for votes, he has for decades spoken for himself, not to pander to any interest group or do well in any poll.
Of course there’s also the matter of competence and experience and executive ability. Otherwise, a host of preachers and inspirational-circuit speakers would all qualify for the presidency. Nevertheless, don’t belittle service in high positions in the White House in two different administrations. From the inside, a smart staffer gets a sense of how things work, and a top staffer must be familiar with the whole panoply of issues. Of course, just serving as press secretary or head speechwriter does not necessarily qualify someone for the presidency — but if the press secretary is particularly bright, and has a wide variety of experience outside of “flacking,” and has overseen other workers and established his own reputation…well, then, it is not entirely inconceivable that he could make a good president, and certainly an effective candidate, without ever holding any other elective or appointive office.
And Snow does have a good personal story. After getting a college degree in philosophy, he taught physics geography in Kenya, and also served as a substitute teacher in Cincinnati, on subjects as diverse as art and calculus. He also worked in North Carolina as an advocate for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.
This is a guy with heart.
Is this, then, an endorsement of Tony Snow for president in 2008? Not exactly. But it is a suggestion that Snow has a great deal of the “right stuff” for which conservatives have been looking, perhaps enough of the right stuff to make the idea worth pondering for 2012 or even 2016 (he’s only 51 right now). And frankly, we really could do a lot worse for 2008.
But if Snow can’t exactly pull off a race for president in 2008, there is another public office he ought to consider. Virginia’s senior U.S. Sen. John Warner will be just shy of 82 when the next election rolls around. After five terms in the Senate, he may just decide that he has had enough.
Think about it, readers. This White House press secretary really ought to serve in some high elective office. And despite the name, this is no Snow job, but a serious suggestion.
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