Foreign Affairs

Gizzi on Politics: Tony Snow’s Last Briefing and Japan

‘The Sweeper’ The Last Question on Tony Snow’s Last Briefing

I never expected that today’s afternoon briefing at the White House would be Tony Snow’s swan song — much less that the last question posed at his last briefing as press secretary to the President would be mine.

But that’s how it worked out today.  Although my fellow White House correspondents and I had been told that Snow’s last day was Friday, September 14, I learned by accident (Bill Sammon of the Washington Examiner was in our offices to sign his new book published by Regnery and told me) that this would be Snow’s final briefing and he would only be in his office through Friday.

I was surprised.  Colleagues Michelle Oddis and Ericka Andersen, who were my guests at the briefing, were excited.

To no one’s surprise, most of the questions were about General David Petraeus and his two days of testimony before Congress on Iraq.  As he almost always was, Snow was superb, batting the hard pitches out of the James Brady Briefing Room, bantering with reporters, and — his obvious loss of hair and weight from cancer treatment aside — looking like he meant it when he commenced by saying answering their questions was “the most fun I ever had.”

There were other questions beside Iraq, including queries about the changes of government in Russia and Japan.  And then came the signature “Thank you, Tony” from Terry Hunt of the Associated Press, which was a hint the briefing was over.

But it wasn’t.  An obviously irate Les Kinsolving, radio talk show host and veteran of White House briefings since the Nixon Administration, cried out: “Tony, wait a minute.  Come back — no, wait a minute, Tony, this is the last — “

An amused Snow did come back and asked: “Is this a meltdown, Les?”

Although Kinsolving’s anger and loud tone were a bit upsetting, the onetime Episcopal priest seemed to speak for many when he said that “none of us in the back have had a chance.  You’ve been in the front [taking questions from correspondents in the front row].  This is your last briefing.  You want to go out well.”

Amused, Snow invited Kinsolving to be “as rude as you want” and then, in what he called, an “open-ended commitment,” proceeded to take questions from all of us in the back rows.

He dispatched Kinsolving’s two-parter — about the Code Pink demonstrators during the Petraeus testimony and then about Jimmy Carter at the Toronto Film Festival — and then proceeded to call on Andrei Sitov of Tass (inquiring, of course, about Vladimir Putin’s naming a new premier), India Globe’s Goyal, USA Radio’s Connie Lawn (the most senior White House correspondent after Helen Thomas), and veteran business reporter Paula Cruickshank. 

And then it was “Okay, John. This, by the way, will be the final question.” 

“He’s the sweeper,” someone called out. 

“The cleanup batter, I guess,” I said, “At the Christian Science Monitor breakfast yesterday, Secretary [of the Treasury Henry] Paulson commented that France and Germany have cut their corporate income tax even more than the United States, and suggested that that might be an endeavor the administration will pursue. Can you say that — “

Snow replied: “Let’s put it this way: We live in a very competitive economic environment globally. If you take a look at what’s going on in our economy, increasingly exports are playing a major role in our economic growth. They’re growing far more rapidly than imports. And in a global economy, what you need to do is to maintain competitive — you have to be competitive. That includes such things as regulations, corporate tax rates and so on. And what Secretary Paulson was doing was reflecting our view that we need to be fully fit, because the rest of the world is not sitting still. They understand the challenges of competition in a global environment. They also understand the importance of free trade.
And in a situation like that where we are advocating for freer trade around the globe, we also want to make sure that our companies are not placed at a competitive disadvantage.”

“Thank you,” I said. 

And then Tony Snow closed his career as spokesman to the President with “Finally, thank you all.”

And we all applauded.  

Will it be Aso After Abe?

Hours after the stunning news that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had resigned after barely a year in office, pundits and pols from Tokyo to Washington were focused primarily on one prospective successor:  Yaro Aso, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and a foreign minister.

With his relationship to the 52-year-old Abe not unlike that of Vice President Dick Cheney to President Bush, the 66-year-old Aso has been dubbed “the second most powerful member of the [Abe] administration” by the London Financial Times.  An industrialist, Aso — like Abe — is the grandson of a past prime minister (Aso’s grandfather was Shigero Yoshida, arguably the most revered of Japan’s postwar leaders).

The United States has been closely watching the political situation in Japan since July, when Abe’s LDP was routed in elections for the upper House of that country’s parliament.  Opposition Democratic Party leader Ozawa, who is demanding elections for the all-important lower House, has called on his country to end the refueling of ships from the U.S. and other major countries in the war on terror that are headed for Iraq and Kuwait — in effect, cutting off Japan’s role in the war on terror, which Abe and Aso strongly support.

In addition, while the recent elections led to a major reshuffling of the ruling LDP regime, sources close to the Tokyo political scene and the Abe government assured me that Japan’s plan to develop a ballistic missile system were unchanged.  

Aso, who came up in the cement business before entering politics, is considered a more polished spokesman than Abe (although Aso has had his share of gaffes, as when he told an audience that “even people with Alzheimer’s” could understand the point he was trying to make.  Last September, when Abe won the LDP’s ruling presidential poll with 464 out of 703 votes, Aso (who also served as foreign minister under Abe’s predecessor Junichiro Koizumi) came in second with 136 votes.    

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