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?
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.”
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.”