By WILLIAM KRISTOL
The New York Times
Published: July 14, 2008
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow responds to a reporter's question, in this Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2006 file photo.
(AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, FILE)
The late Tony Snow — how odd it is to write “late” before Tony’s name, and how sad — was an editorial writer and columnist, the host of “Fox News Sunday” for seven years and of a radio talk show for three, and a speechwriter in the White House of the first president Bush and press secretary for the second. We were twice colleagues (at the first Bush White House and at Fox), and throughout our two decades together in Washington compatriots and friends.
I could easily dilate on Tony’s impressive achievements in journalism and government, and on the remarkable abilities and manifold talents that made his professional accomplishments possible.
But I’ll remember Tony Snow more for his character than his career. I’ll especially remember the calm courage and cheerful optimism he displayed in his last three years, in the face of his fatal illness.
For quite a while now, optimism has had a bad reputation in intellectual circles. The fashionable books of my youth — and they are good books — were darkly foreboding ones like Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984.” Young conservatives of the era were much taken by Whittaker Chambers’s gloomy memoir, “Witness.” We who read Albert Camus — and if you had any pretensions to being a non-Marxist intellectual, you read Camus — loved the melancholy close of his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
The basic attitude one derived from these works was that pessimism is deeper than optimism, and existential angst more profound than cheerful confidence. This attitude remains powerful, perhaps dominant, among many thoughtful people today — perhaps especially among conservatives, reacting against a facile liberal belief in progress.
Tony Snow was a conservative. But he didn’t have a prejudice in favor of melancholy. His deep Christian faith combined with his natural exuberance to give him an upbeat world view. Watching him, and so admiring his remarkable strength of character in the last phase of his life, I came to wonder: Could it be that a stance of faith-grounded optimism is in fact superior to one of worldly pessimism or sophisticated fatalism?
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow points during his daily briefing to the press at the White House in Washington in this August 30, 2007 file photo. Snow, who battled colon cancer, has died, FOX News reported on July 12, 2008. Snow, 53, who had been a conservative commentator on FOX, resigned in August 2007 as President George W. Bush's spokesman after a recurrence of cancer. Picture taken August 30, 2007.
Tony was one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet — kind, helpful and cheerful. But underlying these seemingly natural qualities was a kind of choice: the choice of gratitude. Tony thought we should be grateful for what life has given us, not bitter or anxious about what it hasn’t.
So he once wrote that “If you think Independence Day is America’s defining holiday, think again. Thanksgiving deserves that title, hands-down.” He believed that gratitude, not self-assertion, was the fundamental human truth, and that a recognition of this was one of the things that made America great.
After Tony’s cancer diagnosis and surgery in 2005, his faith deepened. So, amazingly, did his sense of gratitude. That doesn’t mean he accepted his illness, or the prospect of dying. He fought both. Above all, he didn’t want to leave his wife, Jill, and his three children.
Still, he understood the limits of human control. And, perhaps because of his faith, he found dying in a way life-enriching. As he wrote last year, “The mere thought of death somehow makes every blessing vivid, every happiness more luminous and intense.”
Tony once spoke at a dinner for journalists held in conjunction with the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. Cal Thomas reported on Tony’s remarks: “After his first cancer surgery, Snow said, he had to stay in bed and he began reading the Bible more, ‘learning to pray’ and to ask God to ‘draw me closer, please, [which] develops a hunger that is also a form of joy.’ ” As this last sentence hints, Tony was an avid reader of C. S. Lewis.
In July 2001, Tony wrote a beautiful tribute to a friend and former Washington Times colleague, Ken Smith, who had died of cancer at age 44. Seven years later, the piece reads uncannily as if the subject were Tony himself.
Tony described his friend’s extraordinary grace as he suffered from a cruel and debilitating form of cancer. Ken “hated fussing over himself, and didn’t want to burden anybody” with his problems. He “accepted calmly the news that his cancer was incurable.” What’s more, “Ken never became bitter or morose. He didn’t milk his plight to elicit pity. He remained himself.” And “when it mattered, his virtues always dominated his vices.” Above all, “He used the light of his faith to dispel shadows of death.”
In this Sept. 14, 2007 file photo, on his last day as President Bush's spokesman, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow reacts as he is cheered on by a large assembly of staffers on his departure, in Washington.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Tony concluded: “I find myself in the odd position of mourning less than I ought to because I feel so grateful that I got to know him at all. The world doesn’t produce as many nice guys as it should. Ditto for people who possess exemplary courage, strength, decency and faith. Ken got 44 years to show the rest of us how to brighten a life and a world.”
Tony got 53 years to show the rest of us how to brighten a life and a world. We should be grateful. But I can’t help being indignant that he didn’t have longer.