WASHINGTON – New White House press secretary Tony Snow suffered a couple missteps in his first question-and-answer session with the White House press corps Friday.
Snow danced around several queries by saying he did not know enough to answer. And although he had at times been harshly critical of President Bush as a FOX News commentator and conservative radio host, Snow clearly was being careful not to step on the wrong toes now that he speaks on behalf of Bush.
For instance, one reporter asked about the government's abrupt end this week to an inquiry into a terrorist surveillance program because the National Security Agency refused to grant Justice Department lawyers the necessary security clearance.
Snow deferred that one to deputy press secretary Dana Perino. "There's a very limited number of people who are briefed on that program," she said.
As the discussion continued, reporters complained that they couldn't hear the soft-spoken Perino. Snow took over, read a few talking points from a sheet of paper and then ended that line of questioning. "As the new kid on the block, I'm not fully briefed on the issue," he said.
All of this created an atmosphere of contention among the elbow-to-elbow press corps.
Snow, a telegenic man who has built a reputation as a bright, unflappable presence on radio and television, seemed to take it in stride. "This is just a mess," he acknowledged good-naturedly.
Snow has been on the job since Monday, but was waiting to hold his first televised briefing -- taking advantage of a week when Bush was on the road most days -- to practice and begin educating himself on a dizzying array of policy positions.
On Friday, he scheduled his first informal back-and-forth with the press, an informal, off-camera session called the "gaggle" which White House press secretaries typically hold in the mornings as a sort of warmup for The Big Dance -- the formal White House daily news briefing.
Snow had announced that he was moving the gaggle to his West Wing office from the theater-like White House briefing room, in hopes of making it more of a casual, intimate conversation.
But it got under way several minutes early. And though the press secretary's quarters are among the more spacious in the West Wing, the room quickly filled to overflowing -- so that many reporters were stranded, unable to hear or ask questions, in the hallway outside.
Asked what he plans to change now that he has taken over as Bush's chief spokesman, Snow laughed: "Apparently the gaggle." He promised to move the session back to the more orderly venue of the briefing room, and look into the requests for information that he hadn't been able to supply.
One of his first announcements was to further postpone his first on-camera briefing. Expected to be on Monday, Snow said it has been moved back to Tuesday.
And why not?
His boss is giving a speech to the nation Monday night.