WASHINGTON—For more than a hundred years, reporters have staked out the West Wing of the White House.
They've badgered press secretaries and accosted official visitors as they leave important meetings. Day in, day out, from the age of the fountain pen to today's wireless laptop, they've been there, telling the world what's going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
That changes next week.
The press corps is moving out of the White House so the briefing room can be remodeled. The reporters, photographers and camera and sound crews are moving across the street to temporary quarters in trailers. They could be there as long as nine months.
"We're doing this reluctantly," said Steve Scully, the political editor at C-SPAN and the president of the White House Correspondents Association. "People come and go. You can see heads of state come and go. We won't see that from across the street. ... This is a very closed White House and they're very restrictive about who you can talk to. That makes it all the more important to be close."
The press has been close for a long, long time.
Aging photos in the basement show an early White House press corps wearing top hats and bowlers. One shows reporters posing with President Woodrow Wilson; he doesn't look too happy. A display of black and white photos shows the press corps celebrating a triumphant trip covering President Harry S. Truman in Rio de Janeiro in 1947. Says one caption: "Veteran newsmen from Washington consume appetizing dainties on boat ride from airport to city to meet President Truman." Another trumpets their self-importance, describing their Rio trip as "rivaling the first settlers in America who landed at Plymouth Rock."
Reporters used to hang out in the West Wing's lobby after President Theodore Roosevelt built it and President William Howard Taft expanded it.
They got their own digs much later, in 1970, when President Richard Nixon installed a floor over a small swimming pool that had been built for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had polio, in 1933. The pool was in a narrow section that connects the White House residence to its West Wing.
The pool's still there, visible through a trapdoor in the briefing-room floor, right in front of where the press secretary stands at the podium with the presidential seal behind. To honor history, the renovation will keep the pool largely intact—though still unseen below the floor.
The briefing room seats 47 reporters. Behind it is a smaller room with workstations for print reporters and closetlike booths for TV and radio people. A basement holds more desks and booths.
The briefing-room complex was last remodeled in 1981, when it was named in honor of White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was seriously wounded in that year's assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan.
But that was only a remodeling. This year's more extensive work is long overdue.
The basement wall next to one reporter's cramped desk is crumbling. The space near the AP Radio and C-SPAN booths flooded recently. The heat and air conditioning need an overhaul. All the new technology needs new wiring.
And the new briefing room will boast a video wall behind the press secretary for officials to use to illustrate their points.
For all the new equipment, however, what happens there will remain the same: The press will push the White House to share information about current events with the public, and officials will try their best to spin what they say to make the president look good.
(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)