"Welcome back to the West Wing," President Bush declared to a standing-room-only crowd of reporters. "We missed you – sort of."
For a few minutes Wednesday morning, Mr. Bush could forget (perhaps) his 29 percent public-approval rating and the "gut feeling" of his Homeland Security secretary about an imminent terror attack and the string of Republicans abandoning his Iraq war policy, and celebrate a happy moment in his usually adversarial relationship with the press: a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly renovated James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.
The space remains rather cramped, but it's now fresh and clean and technologically state of the art. The capacity of the air-conditioning system has been expanded, thank goodness. Now, Bush said, "a fella like me will feel comfortable coming in here answering a few questions without losing 20 pounds."
The White House, in cooperation with the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA), spent the past year bringing the area – both work space and briefing room – into the 21st century. In the backdrop to the podium, two 45-inch screens are available for interactive media presentations. There is cooler, more energy-efficient TV lighting. And the 49 press seats (up from 48) are wider, taller, and upholstered in leather.
Should any members of the Fourth Estate still feel inclined to complain about the tightness of the quarters, they can consider this: "Nowhere else is the press this close to the head of state," noted Steve Scully of C-SPAN, president of the WHCA, in introductory remarks. Indeed, just beyond the press office, up a short flight of stairs and down the hall, is the Oval Office.
Also of note to White House history buffs is the swimming pool beneath the press briefing room – still intact but now chock-a-block with wires and electronic equipment. The pool was installed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, as a way for him to exercise despite having a disability. In all, six presidents used that pool, the last being Richard Nixon.
Mr. Scully reminded the assembled media that it was also Nixon who tried to bump the press out of the West Wing and into the office building next door. Were it not for the efforts of UPI's Merriman Smith and Helen Thomas, he might have succeeded, Scully said. But they held firm, and Nixon relented. His solution: board over the swimming pool. Thus was born the White House briefing room. To this day, Ms. Thomas, now of Hearst newspapers, still occupies her seat in the briefing room – perhaps just to make sure she and her fellow reporters get to stay there.