National Commentary

Helen Thomas: New Press Room But Same Old Answers

WASHINGTON –The new White House press center has the look of a Hollywood movie set.

But despite all the glitter, President Bush and his team have failed to come up with fresh answers to the burning issues of the day: the war in Iraq, immigration, child health insurance, visas for Iraqis who cooperated with the U.S.

But you can't have everything.

Press secretary Tony Snow is adapting very well to the new trappings and performing like the broadcaster he once was. Nonetheless, there is a sense of a countdown at the White House, with time running out for the president to salvage his lusterless legacy.

The new press center boasts the latest in high tech equipment, comfortable air conditioning and low-heat lighting. It's state-of-the art for the 21st century.

The platform with an impressive podium for the spokesman is flanked by two American flags and two white Grecian columns, giving it a regal look. There are 49 coveted royal blue leather covered seats and two 45-inch screens for video presentations.

Reporters have been told to take heed of a set of rules and regulations aimed at keeping their new quarters clean — rules that are likely to be ignored as time goes on.

Despite our usual reportorial skepticism, the president kept his word when he said we would be allowed back into our space in the West Wing after a year of being ensconced in temporary quarters a half a block away from the White House.

"Welcome back to the West Wing," Bush told reporters on cutting the ribbon opening the refurbished press center.

"We missed you — sort of," Bush said.

He was inadvertently echoing James Brady, President Ronald Reagan's first press secretary, at the 2000 ribbon cutting when the press center was named 'the James D. Brady briefing room" in his honor.

Brady — who was wounded during the 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan — showed up to dedicate the room. I remember saying to him: "We miss you Jim."

His reply: "I miss you, too — some of you."

Left untouched by remodeling is the drained indoor swimming pool directly under the press room. The pool had been built for President Franklin D. Roosevelt with pennies donated from the nation's school children. Roosevelt's legs were paralyzed from a polio attack years before he took office in 1933 and he needed to swim for therapeutic purposes.

When I started covering the White House on Jan. 20, 1961, a much smaller press corps — without regular television and cable correspondents — was relegated to one room in the West Wing but reporters had the run of a huge reception area where they lounged, napped, read their newspapers and buttonholed official callers as they came and went.

The small press room was a mess, strewn with old newspapers, empty bottles and ashtrays.

A couple of days after he arrived at the White House in 1969, President Richard Nixon inspected the press area and pronounced it "a disgrace."

He decided we should have a new press center in the West Wing and chose the site over the pool.

Nixon was no dummy. Our new surroundings were cleaner and more comfortable, but we were successfully removed from the huge reception room and we no longer could trap official visitors and ask about their appointments with the president and his aides.

When the White House wanted secret visitors, they would often slip in and out through a basement side door.

In the new above-the-swimming-pool press room, our access became much more limited, which was the name of the game.

Seared in the memory of long timers was that day in August 1974, a few days before Nixon was forced to resign from office. Reporters and cameramen became temporary prisoners in the press room when the doors were locked to permit Nixon to stroll around the White House grounds for a last time.

Presidents have always wanted to give the press a proper showcase in buildings — but far, far away. But reporters and photographers have managed to stay put in the White House where they can better track the news.



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