The first time I met Tony Snow, it was 1987 and we were on a boat in the Potomac — high-ranking Navy people in the Pentagon loved to take journalists out on skiffs in those days to ensure our fidelity to their effort to build a a 600-ship fleet — and he was due the next day to be interviewed for the editorial-page editorship of the Washington Times, where I was working. He was then writing editorials for the Detroit News.
The first thing I noted was that he was one of the best-looking men I’d ever met. The second was that he had a mystical self-confidence I was soon to learn was bottomless. He was certain he would be offered the job at the Times and was therefore certain he could make all kinds of demands — demands he heedlessly shared with me, someone he didn’t know from Adam. His brashness might have been off-putting were it not for his goofy laugh and playful sense that the pursuits of ambition were all part of a game, that they were not an end in themselves, that there was something larger and more important beyond them.
I don’t mean that he was a spiritual man. He wasn’t at all, at least not then; but in his final years, he embraced the public profession of faith in an open and ingenuous way. Rather, he was exceptionally deft at climbing what Disraeli called “the greasy pole” because in some fundamental way, he didn’t take the fame-and-power game seriously. That’s why he was so good at it, and why his ascent from peak to peak earned him no enemies. I never saw Tony in any but a cheerful mood, even when he suffered a career reversal; he simply assumed he would rise and do better than he had before his troubles, and so he did. Only the tragic onset of a disease limited his capacity for triumph, and even then he had one profound triumph, when he beat his colon cancer in its first iteration.
He wrote, he edited, he wrote speeches, he hosted television shows and radio shows and gave endless speeches. In all these pursuits he was agile and deft and successful. But I think it’s safe to say that it turned out Tony’s greatest achievement was his time as White House press secretary. At this crucial job, a central one in American political life, he proved to be the best — the best ever, without qualification. He could speak with fluency, honesty, wit, and clarity on every subject under the sun; he remained poised, unruffled, and as sure of himself at the podium in the press room as he was on that boat in the Potomac nearly two decades earlier.
Tony was a fascinating type. He was, literally, the opposite of a paranoid. He was a “pro-noid.” He assumed people liked him. It is a rare quality for any person. It is almost unheard-of in Washington. Tony lived a wonderful life in large measure because he believed the universe was on his side, and it was. Until it wasn’t.
The injustice of his passing at 53 is especially hard to bear because of it.