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Tony Snow leaves the political battleground to focus on bigger fight

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Usually when big-shot Washington figures say they're abruptly leaving their job to spend more time with their families, you have good reason to roll your eyes and say, "Yeah. Right." But no eyes rolled in the roomful of reporters when White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said it on his last day on the job.

It was the morning after the president's televised speech to announce the first "drawdown" of American forces in Iraq. Mr. Snow met with reporters in a newsmaker breakfast held by The Christian Science Monitor. For Mr. Snow, it was a "farewell breakfast" on his last day as press secretary. For me, after often hammering the White House for which Mr. Snow was chief spokesman, it was a "no hard feelings" breakfast.

He's leaving to spend more time with his family, he said, and quite candidly for "financial reasons." No one begrudges him his expressed need to make money in amounts that best can be made in the private sector. For one reason, as he put it, "I've got this cancer."

He was 51 when he came into the job back in April 2006, and he looked younger. A year and a half later, battling a recurrence of cancer, he looks strikingly older than his years. His hair has turned gray and thinner. But his cheerful, people-loving spirit has not dimmed, even when faced with surly journalists.

When he became press secretary, I praised the choice in a column as a smart public relations move. After all, he had spent years of writing columns and editorials and hosting radio and TV talk shows. He also had been a speechwriter and press official in President George H.W. Bush's administration. He knew both sides of the critical media lens through which every president is perceived.

"As Bush enters his last 1,000 days in office with his approval ratings barely above 30 percent," I wrote, "the quick-witted Snow replaces the tight-lipped, constantly uncomfortable-looking Scott McClellan with a face so camera-worthy as to require the invention of TV, were it not around already."

Today, Mr. Bush's approval ratings have not improved, and he has dragged his party down with him. Republicans lost control of Congress in a November uprising, mostly against the administration's Iraq war policy.

Still, Mr. Snow dutifully smiled his way through strong support of Mr. Bush's determination. "He's strong in his views," he said of Mr. Bush at one point. "He doesn't do simply the popular thing - obviously!"

Of course, Mr. Snow was still a press secretary. Being a presidential spokesman means he had to say things sometimes that made me groan as if I didn't believe even he believed what he was saying.

But compared with a lot of his predecessors in the job, Mr. Snow leaves with a lot of good, or at least respectful, feelings on the part of the adversary press.

Asked about his biggest surprise on the job, he kept coming back to the failure of the administration immigration reforms, an issue that divided the president's base more severely than any other.

"I deeply admire what he did on immigration, and I do think he's right," Mr. Snow said, but, "I probably got more hate mail on that than anything else."

Mr. Snow told me after the breakfast that he would like to write a couple of books. One would be on dealing with illness. The other would be an analysis of "the meltdown of the Republican Congress." He's learned a lot about both topics, the hard way.

When he came into the job, I also wrote this: "Snow is no refugee from the goofy wing of conservatism. In the 15 years I have known him professionally, he has impressed me repeatedly as a man of conscience who genuinely cares about solving the tough problems of poverty, bad schools and sour race relations." He has not disappointed me.

Now his biggest problem is a very personal one, fighting the Big C. It's probably just as well that he's leaving to spend more time with his family and other pursuits. It's got to be hard for the press to be tough on a press secretary who looks like a profile in courage, even when he's not trying to.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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