Previously published in Politico
A year ago this Sunday, former White House press secretary Tony Snow died after a valiant battle against colon cancer.
I remember that day in almost all of its detail. I had just returned from Japan after President George W. Bush’s final G-8 meeting. I had been trapped in a hotel for several days, in the densest fog I’d ever seen, dealing with multiple crises on the domestic and international fronts; all I wanted was to sleep in my own bed and catch my breath before tackling another week at the White House.
My phone rang on Saturday morning, July 12, 2008, a little before 7 a.m. I rolled over, disoriented, and picked up my BlackBerry — it was Ed Henry of CNN. That couldn’t be good. I got that panicky feeling I felt when reporters called instead of e-mailed at odd hours — I was constantly worried about another terrorist attack. But Ed had a different question — could I comment on the confirmation that Tony Snow had passed away?
A lot of thoughts ran through my head while my heart sank and my breath caught in my throat. I knew I didn’t want the news to be that the White House was informed by a reporter if Jill, Tony’s wife, had tried to reach us. I asked Ed if I could call him right back. I checked my e-mail, and there it was — a message from her had come in a little after 6 a.m. I hesitated a few moments before clicking to open it. Her note was classy and warm at the same time, sad and stoic — informing me that Tony had succumbed in the early hours of the morning. She asked me to share the news with the White House. Usually it was someone on the senior staff at the White House informing me of bad news. That morning, the tables were turned.
The pace that day was feverish as I fielded multiple requests from reporters who worked hard to write obituaries and tributes to Tony. We helped organize his funeral to take a load off of Jill’s mind, especially given the huge number of people wanting to attend.
It wasn’t until many months later, after I had left the White House, that I had some time to reflect on how his life and death affected me. And now, about 360 days later, I think I’ve got it.
I knew Tony as a great communicator with an ability to argue without being confrontational or disagreeable. He could write beautifully and quickly. He was always game to try convincing someone why President Bush’s policies were the right ones. During the immigration debate, we’d give him a list of conservative talk radio shows and he’d call to explain for the umpteenth time that “the president’s proposal was not amnesty!”
He had his finger on the pulse of what Americans were thinking, and his fan base grew quickly. His coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks as a reporter gave him the foundation to argue forcefully and convincingly about the importance of keeping our country safe and for supporting our troops. As my predecessor as press secretary, he was brilliant at the podium, with a star quality the White House briefing room had never seen.
Tony didn’t always sweat the details, which sometimes left us scrambling to fill in the gaps. He was almost always a few minutes late, and that wasn’t the easiest thing to be in our punctual White House. Needing to keep his weight up after the cancer treatments, he liked to eat pancake sandwiches for breakfast — getting a stack of cakes and a side of sausage and putting it all together before smothering it in butter and syrup. He loved vanilla lattes and had his assistant, Ed Buckley, run down to the mess to get him several in a day — Ed made it clear he was “picking up for Tony.”
He had dreadful taste in ties, and so we kept spares to switch out before he went on TV. He was charmingly forgetful, regularly losing his wallet and his BlackBerry, sometimes both in one day. One of his BlackBerrys was actually found in a winter boot a few weeks later — it was summer.
By far, the greatest quality of his life was his love for his family. I’m talking total devotion. He could be brought to tears just talking about how caring and sweet Jill is. He sought to protect her, an attractive woman who prefers not to be in the spotlight, at all times. For her 50th birthday, he threw a huge party and wrapped 50 little presents. He told me they’d moved the couches against the walls of the living room and danced like teenagers until the wee hours of the morning. I have long thought that if every woman could be loved just for one day the way he loved Jill, the world would be a happier place.
He had three huge framed pictures of his children on his desk that took up almost all of the space; the rest was taken up by his Bible, newspapers, briefing papers and stacks of fan mail (he answered every one). He was overcome with emotion when talking about his children’s many talents, and he made sure they knew every day how proud he was of them. He’d stay up late to work on homework assignments, and one night he spent the whole time taking care of one of their rescue dogs that had eaten an entire tub of chocolate ice cream. (It wasn’t pretty, but it was funny.)
Given the way he lived his life — with gusto and good humor — and even though I’d known for a few weeks that his prognosis was not good, his death took me a bit by surprise. We communicated by e-mail often, and I got to see him a few times. He never complained about his cancer — he fought it with determination and a calmness that I only hope I could muster if ever faced with a similarly aggressive disease. At work, he would sometimes lay his head back against the chair before and after a press briefing. We knew not to barge into his office, in case he was “resting” his eyes.
On his last day at the White House, he came into my office and asked how I was feeling about things. I said, “Not very good. How am I supposed to follow you? It’s going to be a disaster.” He then asked me to stand up and go over to him. He put his hands on my shoulders, made me look him in the eye, and said, “You are better at this than you think you are.”
It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later when it hit me — I didn’t have to try to be him. I could be myself — and I realized that’s what he’d meant. There were a couple of times after he’d passed away that I’d be grappling with a problem and gnashing my teeth over how to handle it. And one time I remember saying out loud: How would Tony handle this? I gave it a little thought — and then I realized it was a simple answer and it was perfect. He’d laugh. So I did.
As I’ve made the transition out of the White House back into a life where I can put my husband and family first, I realize I still have a lot to learn from Tony. Thankfully, he left all of us enough material from which we keep learning.
Here’s to Tony and his family — thanks for sharing him with us.
Dana Perino served as White House press secretary from 2007 to 2009.