Where the White House meets the press
Published by The
State, August 6, 2006.
The White House pulled the rug out from under its press corps
this week. The chairs and drapes, too. The drapes were faded;
the chairs dilapidated. The rug, as I recall, was pretty disgusting.
The White House press briefing room will undergo a nine-month
renovation. On the day they hung construction zone signs, President
Bush sounded as though he might miss his inquisitors.
"It's a beautiful bunch of people," Bush told a standing-room
crowd. "You deserve better than this."
And so the press corps is being moved out of the house, beyond
the security perimeter, across Pennsylvania Avenue and through
the park to temporary quarters on Jackson Place. For reporters
who crave access, thrive on proximity and have been known to
elbow and spike each other jockeying for position, that's banishment
to Washington's Siberia.
Not even a young mother on her first child's first day of school
suffers separation anxiety the way a journalist does.
The reportorial riff-raff will be allowed back to cover Presidential
events, pronouncements and the still scarce Bush news conferences.
You might not notice the difference.
Does the nine-month dislocation much matter? It could.
The briefing room is a front line of sorts where the administration
and the media joust over policies, politics and the peccadilloes
of power. (Don't try to say that in front of a TV camera on the
White House lawn.)
I spent nine years of my journalism career there covering Ronald
Reagan and the first President Bush. During the 1991 Gulf War,
my foxhole was on the White House lawn; my bunker, a basement
booth; my command post, a second-row seat behind Helen Thomas.
On television, the briefing room looks deceptively larger. NBC's "West
Wing" drama even gave it a tinge of glamour. In reality,
there are only 36 assigned seats. Wires snake everywhere. Photographers'
ladders crowd the walls. There are rats.
On any given day, 80 or 100 type ‘A ' personalities clamor
for tidbits of information and nuggets of insight to set their
reporting apart from the herd. Those insights are sometimes gleaned
when a senior official stops to chat with a reporter. President
Bush himself—Dad, not son—would wander into the briefing
The press corps has gotten the boot before. During an early
Reagan renovation reporters were removed next door to the Old
Executive Office Building. That was, though, a time when you
could still drive down Pennsylvania Avenue, park next to the
White House and move about with some degree of freedom. Every
security breach—the Reagan assassination attempt, a fence
jumper, 9/11—has produced incremental or exponential increases
in security and decreases in access.
The Clinton administration sought to bar the press from the
offices of the press secretary. The indomitable Helen Thomas
would beat on the press room door before most staffers had their
first coffee. The Clintons relented.
White House reporters have long feared some administration would
move them out permanently. We may not always have distinguished
ourselves or won public sympathy, given as we are to asking impertinent
questions: Did you trade arms for hostages? Did you deal with
Saddam Hussein? What were your relations with Monica Lewinsky?
Those were questions that needed to be asked, over and over if
It's not the reporters' job to make a president look good, nor
intentionally to make one look bad. They succeed or fail on their
I've always felt the job was expository: Tell what's happening,
what it means and why the reader or viewer should care.
The sausage-making process has not always been conducted in
full public view. Live televised White House briefings were rare
in the Reagan White House, occasional in Bush One and only became
regular in the Clinton administration.
The media and the White House similarly project images and convey
messages, but not identically. During the 1991 war, President
Bush held one press briefing at the same time caskets of American
servicemen were being unloaded at Dover Air Force Base. CNN,
for one, used a split screen to project both images. The White
House hated it.
Press secretary Tony Snow assured the press corps that it will
return next year to a revamped and, if no more spacious, more
technologically capable briefing room. One expected change is
the installation of a video wall behind the podium. The president
or press secretary can control an ever-changing backdrop to suit
the occasion. Or even power point the press into submission.
Let's hope not. Don't discard the hard hats.