Bush Makes Last Call at Briefing Room

The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 2, 2006; 9:28 PM

WASHINGTON -- President Bush offered White House reporters plush armchair seating in the West Wing briefing room, with suede or velvet upholstery, and double the space.

Then he took it all back.

"Forget it," the president said Wednesday, as he and reporters bid goodbye to the briefing room and work spaces that the White House press corps has occupied in some form since the Nixon administration. "You get to work like the rest of us," Bush said.

What reporters hope the president and his aides don't take back are their promises that the media's eviction from West Wing quarters will not be permanent.

The White House has scheduled the run-down, outdated space for a massive renovation. But a time frame that has expanded from three months to now nine months, and the fact that plans for the new quarters are not even complete as demolition was set to begin Thursday, have fueled speculation about the notoriously press-wary Bush White House's real agenda.

"Tell us the truth," reporters told press secretary Tony Snow on Wednesday.

"You'll be back," he replied.

The move to temporary quarters across Pennsylvania Avenue warranted a party hosted by the White House Correspondents Association; a surprise appearance by Bush and first lady Laura Bush; and a visit by several former White House press secretaries.

The result was a particularly unruly iteration of the daily briefing, an on-camera midday exchange with the White House press secretary that is always by turns earnest and madcap.

There were the usual serious questions.

Then someone offered to sing "Auld Lang Syne." Someone else passed out. And former ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson reprised his role as a relentless presidential questioner, refusing to cede his desire to find out whether Bush believes actor Mel Gibson should be forgiven for an anti-Semitic rant after a drunken driving arrest.

"You're a has-been. We don't have to answer has-been's questions," Bush shot at Donaldson.

"Better to have been a has-been than a never was," the TV man retorted.

The conditions in the room _ hardly the place of glamour depicted in movies _ demonstrated the need. Condensation dripped from air conditioning vents. Ceiling tiles were warped and cracked. Duct tape held chairs together. The standing-room-only crowd competed with trash for space.

"I know you've been complaining about the digs for a while," Bush said. "Let me just say, we felt your pain."

© 2006 The Associated Press