White House Press Room To Be Closed For Makeover

White House press secretary Scott McClellan may be briefing across the street come the summer.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan may be briefing across the street come the summer. (By Jim Young -- Reuters)
By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The White House spokesman will spin on a new stage next summer.

With the administration moving ahead with plans to renovate the dirty and decaying press room off the West Wing of the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan -- or his replacement, if he steps aside before then -- intends to start briefing the world from historic Jackson Place, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, as early as July.

This means the television, print and radio reporters and crews will be booted from the White House for at least seven months as the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room is modernized. To the casual viewer of McClellan's briefings, the press room might look ready for prime time. It's not.

The room is, quite literally, a fire hazard, with wires fraying and cameras, cords and equipment piled throughout. It has all the comforts of a 1970s schoolroom: cramped, ergonomically challenged desks and seats for reporters, and no high-speed Internet access. If this sounds like whining from a pampered reporter, here's more to stew over: The renovation will be paid for largely by taxpayers.

"You will pleased to hear since this project is at the government's initiative, the government will bear the great bulk of the cost," Mark Smith, president of the White House Correspondents Association, wrote to reporters last week.

A cost estimate was not available.

If you think the press should pay a price for all of this, don't worry: The cost includes the removal of cancer-causing asbestos. Media companies will pay to wire the new and improved press room and the temporary shelter, which is off the west side of Lafayette Square.

As part of the makeover, the government plans to rip up the wooden floor that covers the famous swimming pool built for President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. In its place will be a steel-and-concrete floor designed to accommodate wiring and equipment below -- without the fear of setting the place on fire. The goal is to bring into the 21st century a room ordered by President Richard M. Nixon and opened in 1970.

The White House starting kicking around the idea early in the spring, but, like most government projects, the press room's makeover has been slowed by delays.

Reporters, who have resisted previous efforts by the White House to kick the media off campus, are not objecting to the changes, though some fear that the White House could make the temporary move permanent. There's reason for fear. As first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton proposed ousting the media and opening the swimming pool, according to George Stephanopoulos's memoir. It's also no secret the Bush people don't care much for the Washington press.

"As to opposition, I'd say there hasn't been much," Smith said. "In fact, the only outright 'no' I've heard has been from [CBS reporter Mark] Knoller, who says after all the time, effort and money is spent, within a few weeks we'll have turned it into the same old dump."

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