Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

The dingy White House briefing room is to close for refurbishment - or is it for ever?
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The Independent Online

Richard Nixon must have dreamed about it every day. When she was First Lady, Hillary Clinton actually proposed it. But now, under George W Bush, this recurring presidential ambition is about to be realised. The White House press corps is being booted off the premises.

Some time next summer the dingy old press room, wedged between the West Wing and the White House residence proper, will receive its first makeover since Nixon had it installed in 1970. For a few weeks at least, Scott McClellan, Mr Bush's dour spokesman, will hold daily court 100 yards away at the elegant Jackson Place, on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The White House is arguably the biggest single source of news on the planet. Yet generations of spokesmen, top administration officials and, on occasion, Presidents in person, have made their urbi et orbi pronouncements from a room that is small, dirty and claustrophobic. Yes, when you see it on TV, everything looks fine. Not so in real life. The seats are few and cramped. Behind them are the TV cameras, jumbled piles of equipment, sundry accumulated junk and a thicket of cables. If anything, the working spaces behind and below are even worse.

At the White House, the James S Brady Press Briefing Room - so named after Ronald Reagan's first spokesman, shot and partially paralysed in the 1981 assassination attempt on the President - is proof of the rule that the glossier the press facilities, the less there is to communicate.

It is also a perfect symbol of the eternally fraught relationship between power and those who report on it. The two sides distrust each other and suspect each other's every move. But they are also locked into mutual dependence. This administration may be the most disciplined and buttoned-up in memory, led by a President who does not hide his discomfort with, and disdain for, the media. For the latter, however, physical proximity is everything. Death would be preferable to banishment to a new press centre, better equipped but away from the real action.

And once upon a time it was far worse. In the 19th century, the gentlemen of the press had to wait on the street outside, where they would be vouchsafed the odd scrap of information. William McKinley, President from 1897 to 1901, was the first to show mercy and let them inside. Thereafter, things improved. Franklin D Roosevelt wooed reporters by having them into the Oval Office every couple of weeks for press conferences. Harry Truman would play poker with chosen journalist pals in the press corps, and have them over to dinner. A decade later, John Kennedy's charm induced the press corps to overlook his many failings. Thereafter, however, it has been downhill all the way.

Curiously, the biggest threat to the media foothold in the White House came from the newly elected Bill Clinton in 1993. When he came to office, Clinton had a huge chip on his shoulder about the press, believing it had unfairly hounded him on his womanising and his avoidance of the Vietnam draft.

Hardly had he been inaugurated than he instructed his minions to close the door from the press room to the corridor leading to the press spokesman's office, where reporters used to wait in the hallway, to question the spokesman and get a sense of the real White House mood.

The uproar was instant. Never had this happened before, they protested, not even under Nixon in the darkest moments of Watergate. Eventually, sensing a public relations debacle in the making, Clinton relented. But not before Hillary had proposed moving the press room out of the White House and re-opening the swimming pool over which it stood.

That is not going to happen now. The structure of the pool - put in for the polio-stricken FDR in the 1930s - is still intact. But now the press room's wooden floor will be ripped out and replaced by concrete and steel, fitted with state-of-the-art wiring.

Yet a quiet fear gnaws at reporters. Nothing is more permanent than the temporary. For the first time in 35 years they are being evicted from the White House. Might not renovation take longer than expected? Could this be a fiendish Bush plan to rid the White House of the meddlesome scribes once and for all?