WASHINGTON — EVERY night, millions of Americans watching television newscasts see network correspondents report on the president's latest doings with a floodlit White House in the background. It all seems terribly glamorous.
Not so during the day. Around midmorning, the lawn where Brit Hume (ABC), Andrea Mitchell (NBC), and Rita Braver (CBS) do their "stand-ups" looks like a battlefield hastily deserted by a fleeing army. Microphones, tripods, battery packs are everywhere. Hardly a soul is in sight.
As you walk up the sloping White House driveway, the first people you meet are some television technicians sitting next to a battery of microphones arrayed near the Oval Office. They're waiting for some visiting dignitary to emerge from a meeting with the president and provide some clues about what the big guy is thinking today.
You hook a left in front of the Oval Office and proceed toward the nondescript door that leads to the White House pressroom.
You open the door, expecting a beehive of activity, and you see - a bunch of very bored-looking TV camera operators. Some are perusing newspapers, others are snoozing with their feet propped up on chairs. One guy in bluejeans is sprawled out, reading a paperback behind the lectern that a succession of presidents have used to address the nation.
"The briefing today will be at one o'clock," the pressroom loudspeaker announces.
Where's the action? You walk through the briefing room and head over to the correspondents' offices. Well, not exactly offices: more like mini-cubicles. A few privileged wire services and networks have walk-in offices that make broom closets look spacious.
This is the real world of the pressroom, where glamour is in short supply and tedium is the order of the day.
"People have a romanticized notion of the White House press corps," says Lorraine Voles, the president's deputy press secretary. "It's hard to imagine that they spend all day in an underground hovel, that they work in tiny old cubicles, and that they don't have modern equipment."
The reporters do get some time away from the cubicles, of course. Every day a rotating group of journalists forms a "travel pool" that races along with the president and reports back to the rest of the press corps. The pool's first event is usually the president's morning jog around 6:30 a.m.
As Bill Clinton huffs and puffs down the street, a black van filled with pool reporters follows. This morning ritual usually produces a sound-bite or two that turns up on the nightly news; not to mention such priceless details as this one, drawn from the pool report earlier this month when the prez jogged with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut: "Clinton and Lieberman got sprayed by a sprinkler along the way."
"The briefing today will be at 12:30."
While print reporters who aren't in the pool often go off to do independent reporting during the day, TV correspondents and wire-service reporters spend most of their days in the narrow, dimly lit confines of the White House pressroom - or, as they like to say, "in the bubble" - waiting. Waiting for some newsworthy visitor to emerge from the Oval Office. Waiting for "a top administration official" (as they're invariably identified under the ground rules) to give a background briefing. Waiting for a good "photo op" (photo opportunity). Waiting for the president to deliver a speech.
All those contingencies have to be covered. And not just the events themselves: The TV cameras faithfully record every second of the president's travels, with a cameraman always leaning out through the sunroof of a van to videotape the motorcade.
"We shoot it for protective reasons," explains David Bacheler, a cameraman for Cable News Network, "in case something happens."
Such as? "Well, there could be a terrorist attack. If you're a cameraman and something happens to the limo, you have to be rolling."
"Dee Dee will be briefing at 12:45."
Stewart Powell, White House correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, compares his beat to the first major story he covered as a cub reporter for United Press International (UPI) in Boston - a prison riot.
"We stood outside the gates of the prison and watched the cops go in and suppress the riot. Then we watched them march out. Then the prison spokesman came out and told us what had happened," Mr. Powell recalls. "That's what happens here. We watch congressmen go in, and we rely on the spokesman to tell us what happened. We also rely on the visitors to give us their version of events. Then we try to piece together what happened and add some perspective. It's like covering a prison riot from outside the wal l."
"Ladies and gentlemen, the briefing today will be at one o'clock."
The realities of the White House pressroom - journalists trying to find out as much as they can, administration members releasing only favorable nuggets - are bound to create tensions. At the beginning of the Clinton administration, those tensions were boiling over. Reporters were seething over what they saw as the ineptitude, distortion, and deception of White House aides - not to mention the president's attempt to go over the heads of the news media and communicate directly with the country via televis ed "town meetings." The "Hair Force One" stories about the president's runway haircut in Los Angeles probably marked the nadir of press-staff relations.
Then along came David Gergen. The president's new media maestro increased reporters' access to top White House officials and scheduled more press briefings. That led to a short-lived detente between press and handlers.
But hostility has flared anew over the White House's handling of the suicide of assistant counsel Vincent Foster and more fall-out from the firing of the travel office. White House staff have been particularly - and understandably - touchy about questions relating to the death of their friend and colleague. Reporters keep asking about it.
"The pursuit of the Foster story is driven by suspicion borne by the peculiarly evasive and contradictory statements made by officials," says Mr. Hume, chief White House correspondent for ABC News. "The feeling is, 'If somebody's not hiding something, why are they acting this way?' "
"Dee Dee Myers will be briefing in one minute," the loudspeaker announces at 1:14 p.m.
The daily White House briefing is where reporters get to grill press secretary Myers, who has to stand there and take it. Today the briefing is dominated by questions about Travelgate, although that has nothing to do with the big stories that will appear on the evening news or the next morning's papers.
The headlines will be about the House of Representatives' passage of the president's budget. But the pack in the White House pressroom is more interested to learn that Clinton employs the services of attorney Bob Barnett, who also works for Hume and Ms. Mitchell of NBC News and is married to Ms. Braver of CBS News. Despite that tantalizing tidbit, most of the reporters leave the briefing unsatisfied.
"There are still too many instances of briefers not knowing the answers or being evasive," Hume grouses. "Dee Dee's trying, but it's a very difficult job for someone with only a limited experience of Washington. She's improving, and she needs to."
The rest of the afternoon is dominated by two events for the press corps. First, Ms. Myers accedes to a press request and ushers a "pool" of reporters to the window of the Oval Office, where they stare at the president making phone calls to congressmen about his budget plan. A photo of the president in the First Goldfish Bowl will make the front page of the New York Times the next day.
At 4 p.m., there's a Rose Garden ceremony. Sometimes the president hosts several of these ceremonial functions in one day. Today there's only one, to honor the 1992 and '93 inductees into the National Teachers Hall of Fame. The teachers gather on a small stage, guests sit in the audience, and the press corps stands in a roped-off area at the rear.
The president arrives on Clinton Standard Time - a mere 15 minutes late. Then he and Education Secretary Richard Reilly run through the ceremony as quickly as possible, it seems. ABC's Hume sits with his back to the proceedings. After the last inductee has been introduced, the press corps gets what it was waiting for: a brief, shouted Q&A:
"What are you telling these congressmen that you're on the phone with?"
"Have you spoken to Senator Kerrey, sir?"
"Are you going to win the vote tonight?"
The answers provide more sound-bites for the evening news. Reporters view the "Rose Garden follies" as the price they pay for doing their jobs. "The ceremonies give one access to the president," says UPI's Helen Thomas, the doyenne of the White House press corps. "It's better than getting it from spin doctors."
Still, it's hard not to wonder: Why bother? Why wait hours to get a few pearls from the president's mouth? Why be constantly herded and watched like a zoo animal? Why not go and cover Congress instead, or the Baltimore Orioles?
"You get frustrated, especially with the physical confinement," says Gene Gibbons, a Reuters reporter who has covered the White House since 1986.
On the other hand, there are compensations. "You're writing the Page-1, lead story as often as not. Then there's the ego massage of being seen on TV. But all that gets old pretty quickly," Mr. Gibbons says. "The biggest compensation is that if you're an action junkie, this is the place to be. It never gets boring."