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White House Media May Get Temporary Boot

Cramped, Stuffy Space Is Being Considered For August Renovation

By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 28, 2005; Page A15

The Bush administration is considering kicking the Washington press corps out of the White House -- at least for a month or so, that is.

The stuffy, packed, run-down White House briefing room has become something of a safety hazard over the years and may require a top-to-bottom renovation this summer, according to administration officials. President Bush, who sometimes holds news conferences in the room, recently made a personal pitch for a new, airier briefing room, taking some reporters by surprise.

Associated Press photographer Pablo Martinez, right, is among those crammed into the press room the White House hopes to renovate. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

"Listen, whoever thought about modernizing this room deserves a lot of credit," Bush said at the end of the news conference. "Like, there's very little oxygen in here anymore. And so, for the sake of a healthy press corps and a healthy president, I'm going to end the press conference."

The renovation, which might begin in August, appears to be the brainchild of Joe Hagin, a deputy White House chief of staff who has broached the idea with at least one reporter.

If the administration moves forward, the dozens of reporters who work and virtually live in the cramped quarters will be relocated to a spot outside the White House, a scenario that does not sit well with some journalists concerned about long-term access to the president and administration officials. The temporary accommodations for the White House press corps would likely be in the nearby Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

"I and a lot of other reporters would insist there be no diminution of either space or access," said Keith Koffler, a White House correspondent for Congress Daily. "Basically, they can spruce up the place, but then we want to be right back where we were."

For reporters with institutional memory, it is hard not to worry.

As George Stephanopoulos, communications director for President Bill Clinton, recounts in his memoir, then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton wanted to boot the media out and reopen the famous indoor swimming pool that sits right below the floor of the briefing room. That's the same pool Franklin D. Roosevelt used for polio therapy and John F. Kennedy used for other extracurricular activities. The pool was closed, and the press room above it was built in 1970.

There is also a government plan that has been floating around for several years calling for the room to be sliced in half and most reporters moved to a nearby underground bunker.

"My only concern is they use this as a Trojan horse to kick us out or shrink our space," said White House reporter Ron Hutcheson, president of the White House Correspondents Association. "I am in the trust-but-verify mode. There is nothing in there that sets off the alarms that there is a nefarious plan here."

Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, said reporters will end up with a sleeker, not smaller, room. "I have not heard talk of reducing space at all," he said.

Although the briefing room might appear spacious and even glamorous to those watching at home, it is not.

In a space no larger than a decent-size living room, 48 small theater-style chairs are crammed together, feet from the podium where press secretaries Scott McClellan, Ari Fleischer, Joe Lockhart and many others before them have held their daily and sometimes televised briefings.

The carpet is worn, and cameras, ladders and other equipment are piled along two walls and in the back of the room. Reporters from the networks, wire services and some of the larger newspapers have desks, small offices and working spaces in an adjacent room and downstairs in a windowless basement. There is a small coffee room, with a few vending machines and restrooms.

"We all know how grubby that room is and how it could use renovation and updates to it with all the modern needs we have," said Ed Chen, White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

One idea under consideration would be to wire the room for high-speed Internet access, which it lacks, and put microphones at each chair, which could help television viewers hear reporters' questions.

Still, the briefing room remains prime White House real estate. Its doors open to both the Rose Garden and the office complex for White House press officials, a short walk from the oval office.

Reporters are allowed to roam free only as far as McClellan's office, which is down the hall from the briefing room.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company