Aroma of Socks Lingers Where Press Corps Meets President

Familiar but frumpy, the White House briefing room is getting a makeover. Reporters hope it will also supply a breath of fresh air.

The familiar blue curtain adorned with the presidential seal still looks pretty spiffy, especially on TV. But the rest of the White House briefing room - where reporters converge, jaw, and munch while waiting for the president to make news - wouldn't exactly qualify for a spread in Architectural Digest.

Lived in from 5:30 in the morning to about 10 at night, the familiar backdrop (and the rabbit-hutch-like work spaces to the rear of the area) has grown shabby and stained over time from sheer use. Now, however, the briefing room is closed for the first time in recent memory as it undergoes an intensive 10-week, 24-hour-a-day makeover.

The jackhammers, saws, and carpet laying will stop only for Labor Day and presidential events. While the work is an inconvenience for the White House press corps, most here are not grumbling: It is their high hope that the renovation will finally exorcise the smell of sweaty socks and spilled fast food that permeates the room.

"We are hard on [the briefing room] around here," admits Helen Thomas, UPI correspondent and press-corps icon, who may well have spent more cumulative time in the room than any reporter in history. "It [the renovation] will be great."

Packed with cameras, spools of video cable, tripods, and ladders, the briefing room looks more like a cluttered storage closet than a venue where the Fourth Estate meets the most powerful elected official in the world.

Visitors to the main briefing room are universally aghast when they see it. Usually, they remark first on its small size, then scan the packed chaos slowly with a repulsed fascination. It is a curiosity born of lounging cameramen who saw the air with raucous snoring, their socked feet scenting the air, and reporters pressing through narrow aisles that rival those in airline cabins.

The last major makeover here occurred during the Reagan administration. Theater-style seats, assigned to individual news organizations, were installed then, replacing the chairs that reporters used to drag across the floor to get a better spot at the front of the room.

In the old days, before there even was a "modern" briefing room, reporters packed into a tiny room in the West Wing. President Nixon decided to boot them out two days after his inauguration.

"It was late one Sunday night," recalls UPI's Ms. Thomas. "There were papers and empty bottles lying around everywhere. [Nixon] said, 'This is a disgrace!'"

Soon, Henry Kissinger moved his furniture into the room, and the mess-prone press corps was relocated to its current site - a room atop the swimming pool built for President Franklin Roosevelt.

Even now, the very skinny can descend through a trap door in the briefing room, down a narrow ladder into inky blackness. Groping to find a single bulb, you find yourself in the pool's shallow end, left much the way it was when Nixon drained it.

Few realize that White House spokes-man Mike McCurry stands over the pool's deep end, held up by 3/4-inch plywood flooring. Fewer still know that Lyndon Johnson occasionally lobbied bemused - or perhaps speechless - lawmakers as he skinny-dipped in the pool beneath the briefing room.

Planners timed the noisy, dusty work - part of a larger West Wing restoration - to coincide with President Clinton's vacation. Mr. McCurry, too, will escape the jackhammering - at least for a few weeks - as he heads to South Carolina to fish for catfish and eat hush puppies.

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