The arrival of a new president at the White House usually coincides with the arrival of a new White House press corps. For reporters, it's Washington's most prestigious beat, but the daily grind and cramped office space inside the White House gates often inspire a substantial transition every four years. As a result, the green are leading the green.
In my first days on the White House beat, I experienced the inconvenience of all this newness firsthand. When I asked for a packet summarizing the president's plan to support more faith-based social initiatives, a press aide told me, "It would take two hours to clear you in, and I don't have a permanent pass yet, so I can't come out."
Getting everyday press credentials is a bureaucratic process that can take weeks, if not months, but I'm allowed into the daily White House briefing if I call to get on the daily list. Every day White House press aides ask again for my Social Security number and my date of birth. When I arrive at the gate, I submit my driver's license and receive a temporary badge. After a trip through the metal detector, it's a short walk down the lane past the battery of network television cameras where reporters and White House spokesmen do their stand-ups. From the outside, if the White House were a diorama, the press area would look stapled on. Inside, despite the briefing room's authoritative televised appearance, it feels like an overgrown trailer. In mid-winter, it's cold and drafty inside, until the TV lights come on.
As you come in, the press secretary's podium is on your right, in front of eight rows of theater seats, six seats to a row. On the seat of each chair, a small gold engraving announces which news outlet "owns" that seat, but not every outlet is represented every day, so most reporters find a chair. A bank of six or seven television cameras is behind the chairs. A host of TV lights and 10 microphones are on the ceiling, but as a sign of the journalistic pecking order, nine of the 10 mikes are perched over the first three rows, which are dominated by the TV networks and wire services. The ceiling also sports an overhead speaker so everyone can hear the press secretary, but it's often hard for reporters in the back to hear every question tossed from the front rows.
The White House briefing has become a more prominent daily event in Washington since Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry allowed it to be broadcast daily. Political junkies can often watch the briefings live on cable news or catch replays on C-SPAN, observing this daily exercise in whether journalists can coax the president's spokesman into saying something new. To get a sense of the new administration, I kept a log of a week of briefings in these calm early days:
January 31: Press Secretary Ari Fleischer spent much of the Clinton era on Capitol Hill as spokesman for the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, where all tax measures originate. While Mr. Fleischer refers most foreign-policy questions to other spokesmen or other departments while he gets up to speed, he speaks easily about tax and budget policy. He takes exception to NBC's David Gregory's labeling of both tax cuts and spending increases as lost government revenue. Speaking of Mr. Bush, he asserts: "There's a new sheriff in town. Cutting taxes is not, and can never be, government spending. Cutting taxes means people keep the money that they make and less money comes to Washington, so Washington can't spend it in the first place."
Throughout this press conference and into the next week, Mr. Fleischer returns again and again to how the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated "the surplus is $3.1 trillion for non-Social Security purposes. The president's proposed tax cut is by some estimates $1.6 trillion over 10 years. It fits in and it fits in well." The press secretary has already learned that the tone of a briefing isn't much different than a meeting with demanding congressional Democrats.
February 1: Arriving at noon for what I'm told is a 12:30 briefing, I'm detained for 20 minutes until the press office can get my information to the front gate. But while I wait, former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart walks up with a look-who-I-am swagger and talks the guards into taking a letter he has written to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Officials escort the White House press corps into the East Room for an event with President Bush touting his "New Freedom Initiative," a plan to increase subsidies for independent living for the disabled. Sen. Ted Kennedy is among the politicians in attendance, and in the briefing that follows, network reporters respond to the bipartisan feeling with more fight-picking, suggesting that perhaps Mr. Bush is in danger of alienating conservatives.
The major theme of the day becomes the confirmation of Attorney General John Ashcroft, and his religion becomes the source of journalistic titters. One journalist asks: "In the past, he is-this is a serious question-he's had himself anointed with oil when he's been sworn in for previous posts. Has he discussed whether he will follow that practice in this post?" Mr. Fleischer says no, but murmurs and giggles follow. Later, Fox's Jim Angle announces that "Ashcroft has been confirmed," and another reporter jokes, "Anointed," and the press gaggle laughs.
February 5: Before the briefing begins, CBS reporter Bill Plante explains to two high-school students the history of the press room, how the press room was built over a swimming pool put in for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Since 1972, the pool has been filled not with water, but with television equipment.
Another theme that's quickly learned in the Fleischer briefing is that reporters cannot drag criticism of the Clintons out of the new administration. Mr. Fleischer dismisses, passes along, or papers over every question about White House vandalism, questionable last-minute pardons, and on this day, the Clintons' walking out with furniture meant for the permanent White House collection.
Mr. Fleischer usually follows with an "old Washington, new Washington" paragraph. Today's paragraph comes when reporters ask about incoming Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe's questioning the legitimacy of Mr. Bush's election. Mr. Fleischer calls the remarks "disappointing," then adds: "There is an old Washington, and that old Washington is often marked by rancor and division and partisanship, which leads to gridlock. President Bush is endeavoring to create a new Washington, and that new Washington should be marked, in the president's opinion, by principled disagreements and by civility. And that extends even to the heads of the parties." TeamBush clearly believes that criticizing the Clintons only ruins the honeymoon with Democrats and the media.
February 6: The briefing is scheduled at noon, and I'm at the gate at 11:30, but security foul-ups leave seven of us standing around the gate until 12:15. (What will I write about now? How I am a one-man Office of Faith-Based Inaction?) Thankfully, almost the entire 40 minutes of the briefing were consumed by reporters obsessing over the absence of Rep. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.) from a press conference touting new support for the right to sue HMOs. Mr. Norwood, a well-known sponsor of HMO-lawsuit legislation, was missing after a meeting with Bush adviser Karl Rove. Other topics intruded. One reporter demanded to know "why isn't it just a rational idea to give any role in the Middle East peace process to President Clinton by the new administration?"
By contrast, reporters remember former President Reagan on his birthday not for winning the Cold War but for huge deficits. A reporter asks, "I would love to know what lessons President Bush learned from him, and I would refer to the 1981 tax cut, which was followed by huge public debt." When Mr. Fleischer explains that Mr. Bush loved Mr. Reagan's optimism about America, the reporter follows up as if he hadn't heard the answer: "So how to avoid to accelerate public debt after a huge tax cut this time?"
February 7: The late-morning shooting of gunman Robert Pickett after he fired several shots outside the south side of the White House fills the briefing room with electricity. But with news breaking minute by minute, reporters find a dead end in Mr. Fleischer, who strictly observes interagency protocol and repeats "I'll refer you to the Secret Service" so many times that it seems like an unending tape-loop.
With the first half of the briefing coming up empty on new information, reporters questioned Mr. Fleischer about a newspaper report that White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said the administration would discontinue two Clinton-initiated offices, the "Office of National AIDS Policy" and the race-related "Office on the President's Initiative for One America."
Mr. Fleischer declares that Mr. Card was misinterpreted, and that these offices would remain but be reorganized on the administration flow chart. Reporters seem dissatisfied, pounding away at the symbolism. Just as Washington demonstrates its love of education with a Department of Education, reorganizing these offices suggests to the assembled journalists that the new administration is deemphasizing AIDS and race relations. With a never-ending appetite for new information, you can see why reporter Kenneth Walsh titled his book on the White House press corps Feeding the Beast. I'm feeling hungry myself.