Feeding the beast

National | Reporter's notebook: For White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, a press briefing cannot be much different than a meeting with congressional Democrats

Issue: "Reining in the UN," Feb. 17, 2001

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.

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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.


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