Memories of Tony Snow: Journalist extraordinaire
In summer of 1989, Novosti (the Soviet Press Agency) invited 12 American journalists to tour the USSR. At the time, yours truly was editor-in-chief of The Capital Times of Lincoln, Nebraska. My wife, Penny, was special-features editor and a Lincoln radio and TV personality. Somehow, she and I were selected to join ten other American journalists for 17 days of interviews with senior Soviet officials.
As our group assembled at New York’s JFK Airport, we were introduced to a quiet, shy, handsome, young man who, at the time, was editorial-page editor for The Washington Times. His name was Tony Snow. Tony, to the regret of everyone who, later, knew him or knew of his work on radio, as a speech writer for President George H.W. Bush, as the seven-year host of Fox News Sunday, and as press secretary for President George W. Bush, died last Friday of colon cancer, at age 53.
The ring master for our group of 12 was the irrepressible essayist and novelist, Larry Moffitt. Larry sent me off to buy a supply of duty-free whisky to be used to “influence” certain friends Larry knew from his previous ventures behind the Iron Curtain. Tony Snow was dispatched to buy as many cartons of Marlboro cigarettes as the law would allow. None of us smoked; however, the cigarettes would prove indispensable in dealing with customs inspectors and getting Moscow taxi drivers to stop for us. Larry showed us how to pack the cartons of cigarettes inside our suitcases so the Soviet customs inspectors would be able to set them aside and then “forget” to put them back.
The most exciting part of the trip for me was getting through KGB passport control at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. In an earlier life, I had operated in Europe under a variety of names and with a variety of passports. Would the computer being used by the KGB officials say I should be denied entry or even arrested? Fortunately, he gave me the same bored look that he gave to Penny, Tony, Larry and the others. I was in.
Tony was the kind of guy who put the word “gentle” into gentleman. But he was no pushover. One evening our group, AKA the Dirty Dozen, (the City of Moscow had shut down the central hot-water plant for repairs), was invited to a Russian wedding. Vodka was flowing. The Russians were dancing. Then, a really huge and very drunk Russian came over to our table to pick a fight. In a flash, Tony, who was 6-foot-two and very fit, was in between our table of superannuated journalists and the bellicose Russian. I think the Russian was grateful that his comrades pulled him away before Tony could deck him.
In Moscow, Novosti provided a small carry bus to take us (and our KGB minder) to interview the senior officials Novosti wanted interviewed. Tony wanted to interview “real” Russians, so he induced one of us to pretend a wasp bite. During the ensuing confusion, Tony slipped off the bus in search of “real” Russians. When he discovered Tony was missing, our minder almost fainted.
One night near Minsk, we were hosted at dinner by the director of a Collective Farm. As a youth, our host had been badly wounded by the Nazis. An old Babushka (grandmother) nursed him back to health with fermented mare’s milk. Recounting that story, the director made us toast her memory with a shot of fermented mare’s milk. Yuk.
As the senior journalist (in age), I jumped up to offer a response-toast -- but with vodka. Tony caught on to my ploy. He followed immediately with a vodka toast. Then, the rest of the Dirty Dozen caught on and we kept the vodka toasts going around the table to the point our vodka-addled host forgot all about any more toasts with fermented mare’s milk. Whew.
Tony Snow was someone you never forget. We just wish he could have stayed with us a lot longer.
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, studied government and politics at Harvard’s JFK School of Government. Dr. Hamilton is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO)
©2008. William Hamilton.