White House Press Briefing Room Redo

Aug. 2, 2006 — -- The shelves in the White House booths are looking barren, and the garbage is piled high as the press corps prepares to move out of its offices in the White House briefing room and into new -- allegedly temporary -- digs.

It will be the first time since 1902 that the press corps has not had an office inside the White House, and the lack of proximity has reporters worried.

Some are spinning conspiracy theories -- that the White House won't let the press corps back in.

"All they have to say is, 'Oh, the fire officials deem the place a fire hazard and there's not enough room for all of you," one reporter said. "Then they turn it into more White House offices."

"It would be terrible if we were ever moved out of this place permanently," veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas said. "When you are here, you can see many things that they don't want you to see. This is a very secretive administration, so you are lucky to catch the nuances."

In Wednesday morning's off-camera briefing, known as the gaggle, White House press secretary Tony Snow assured the press we would be back in this space just as soon as construction was complete.

"Yes!" he said with a laugh. "We think it's time to replace the heat and air conditioning, replace the carpet that's ratty, and get a state-of-the-art facility that's usable."

Snow added that he looked forward to getting the press back as soon as possible because he would have to make the daily walk to the new space, which could make for "bad hair days."

Still, it's hard to argue against a renovation.

The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room is cluttered, crowded and falling apart.

There are stains on the curtain behind Snow's podium. The carpets, once blue, are brown and green. Pieces of the wall are crumbling, and in one place, covered up with plastic wrap.

With all the gear, cables, and equipment running across the carpets, the place is at times treacherous to navigate.

And that's just the grunge we can see.

Steve Scully, C-SPAN anchor and president of the White House Correspondent's Association, took these notes from a meeting with the White House administration on the condition of the briefing room a year ago:

"With potential of asbestos in the ceilings, plumbing that dates back to the Nixon administration, wiring that is more than 30 years old, and a heating/AC system that cannot be repaired any more. … The briefing room is beyond repair. Some around here think this place is a potential firetrap, so it's not a question of are we going to do the renovation -- there is no question -- we HAVE to do it."

Since then, two booths on the basement level of the briefing room have flooded and a piece of ceiling has fallen on one TV producer.

ABC's Ann Compton, who has covered the White House since 1974 and is the president-elect of the White House Correspondent's Association, says it's time the room is updated for the modern technological age.

"This place was never designed to be a kind of functioning newsroom. … And it's been jury-rigged over a period of two generations," Compton said. "We're hard on a place. We carry big equipment. We are here for 24 hours. We eat at our desks. We drag stuff in the rain and the mud and the snow, so everything takes a beating."

History of White House Press Corps

As the press corps has grown, it has been pushed further away from the president -- literally.

William Bushong of the White House Historical Association says beat reporters started at the White House during the Civil War.

At that time, the executive offices -- and the president's residence -- were on the second floor of the White House.

Reporters lingered in the waiting room outside the staff offices, and just down the hall from the president's private quarters.

Theodore Roosevelt included a small press office in the construction of a new "temporary" office building, which became the West Wing.

Through the '60s, reporters worked in their small press room and lounged in couches in the West Wing lobby where they could talk to visitors as they came for appointments with White House staff.

That's unimaginable today. There are photos of newspaper men sleeping on leather couches on the Web site of the White House Historical Association.

President Nixon pushed the press out of the West Wing. Covering the pool built for FDR, he opened what's now the James S. Brady briefing room.

You can still see the pool under several trapdoors in the carpet -- currently filled with TV wires.

The room has been remodeled before. Compton recalls the time President Reagan replaced couches and foldout chairs with theater seats.

For that remodel, the press corps was moved into a warren of offices on the fourth floor of the former Old Executive Office Building. This will be the first time the press will leave the White House complex.

To prepare for the move, reporters have been tossing out decades-old debris.

CBS' Peter Maier was dumping boxes of audiotapes from the Clinton years. He kept some Lewinsky sound.

In the ABC booth, we found a mechanical recording device that's so ancient, no one could tell us what it might have been used for.

NPR's David Green says he's waiting until the last minute to organize his move.

"I feel like it's college and it's approaching summer and some of my floor mates have already started to pack and it's making me feel under pressure." Green said. "There's history in these shelves."

The Redo

The remodel will bring not only new carpeting and seats but some high-tech improvements, as well.

We hear promises of a plasma screen behind the podium -- when words fail the briefer? -- power and Internet access at each briefing room desk, and for the TV folks, new floors to hold wiring in a fire-safe way.

One improvement will seem to remain beyond our reach.

"We will not get an inch -- not an inch -- more space!" Compton said. Tough, because many reporters sit three people to a desk, or two in a tiny broom closet-size space.

NPR's Green: "It's close quarters. We all get to know each other really, really well."

The Great Move

The press corps is scheduled to move into its new temporary space in a little more than a week.

It's in the New Executive Office Building opposite Lafayette Park and just across from the White House.

Those who have seen it say that it's "frighteningly permanent-looking" and that the walls don't reach the ceiling, so it's possible reporters could hear discussions in their competitors' booths.

The White House assures us that we'll have the same walk-in-anytime access we've always had -- currently, the White House press office is just through a sliding door and down the hall from the briefing room -- and that we'll still do our live shots on the North Lawn.

There's this concern: We'll go through security each time we enter the grounds and with the regular bomb threats and suspicious packages that force closures of the White House gates, there's always the danger we could be locked out for hours at a time.

To help us out, the White House is setting up a temporary holding space -- where we can wait in between live shots for television -- in a trailer near the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Snow held the final prerenovation briefing in this ragtag room at 1:35 Wednesday afternoon, followed by a goodbye party. A number of former press secretaries were expected to show up for the party, and perhaps some other unannounced guests.

In Helen Thomas' view, "every administration wants us out because every administration is secretive and the more we are around, the more we learn."

Her suggestion to guarantee a return to this space? She said, "I think we ought to get it in writing. That is kind of an insurance."

The White House says we'll be back in the space in seven months to nine months, but won't offer a specific date.

Snow, who was asked about the briefing room renovation after fielding questions about a U.N. resolution, said, "The only thing harder to predict than diplomacy is construction."