In the waning days of the Clinton administration, my brother arranged a special behind-the-scenes tour of the White House for my wife and me.
We showed up at a security checkpoint on the southeast corner around midday. I was curious about what precautions and levels of scrutiny I would be subjected to.
As I slipped my driver’s license into a retractable metal tray, I wondered whether I had some outstanding parking tickets somewhere…would they would be placing me under arrest?
I never found out what kind of information their computer systems brought up…did they know about that ‘buying alcohol underage’ arrest from 1987?
The process did not take too long, and soon we were greeted by Clinton speechwriter, Paul Glastris. Mr. Glastris is now the editor in chief of The Washington Monthly and a senior fellow at the Western Policy Center. But at the time he was special assistant to the President of United States. It was pretty heady stuff.
We made small talk as Paul walked us up the long driveway between the Old Executive Office Building and the White House. My memories of that day are somewhat scatter-shot.
I remember walking into the basement where the White House caterers work. We looked at a wall still smoke-stained from the War of 1812.
We visited Paul’s office in the OEOB, and he showed us the office Nixon used there. Apparently Nixon hated the Oval Office, and liked to escape across the street. We were stunned to learn that most of the Nixon tapes had been recorded there.
I was most anxious when we entered the West Wing. Somehow I felt that a terrible mistake was being made. Surely they had better sense than to let someone like me walk around the inner sanctum of American power during working hours.
There was a brightly painted lobby area, with several distinguished foreign-looking gentlemen sitting patiently, waiting to meet some bigwig or another. It almost felt like a dentist’s office.
I got my first sense of Mr. Glastris’s clout when he calmly marched us right past the secretary’s desk into the Roosevelt Room. It had an enormous mahogany desk and, over the mantle, a huge painting of a rough-riding T.R..
And then we were standing in a hallway peering into the Oval Office itself. There was a guard posted, and a movie-theatre style barrier. Paul asked the guard if we could take a peek inside. The guard gave us a wary look, shrugged, and unlinked the rope.
To me, the most striking thing about the Oval Office was the garish, red-striped couches. I quickly identified the passage where Clinton had led Monica Lewinsky for their secret trysts.
We didn’t linger long, and we didn’t meet the President. He was out of town that day. Soon we were in the Cabinet Room, and Paul helpfully explained where each cabinet member sat.
I remember going down a flight of stairs covered with pictures of a smiling Al Gore until we arrived at the door to the Situation Room. I tried to picture Lyndon Johnson pouring over intelligence from Vietnam-era bombing runs.
Our next stop was the press secretary’s office and then we moved into the Press Briefing Room. I had watched many press briefings on television, but I was stunned at how tiny the room was. Imagine cramming 48 theater seats into your living room and then adding a half-dozen cameras and all the equipment that goes with them.
Paul explained that there was a swimming pool below the floorboards where FDR did physical therapy for his polio. Hillary had made an unsuccessful attempt to re-open the pool.
I noticed that all the seats had little plaques on them: Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Christian Science Monitor. I didn’t see Talon News, but then Talon News didn’t exist yet.
Looking back on it, I think the claustrophobic atmosphere in the briefing room contributes to a level of intimacy between the Press Corp and the Press Secretary. It certainly is not a pleasant atmosphere for the press to work in, but they definitely benefit from such close proximity.
That’s why is was intrigued to see the following headline today in the Washington Post: White House Media May Get Temporary Boot: Cramped, Stuffy Space Is Being Considered For August Renovation.
The stuffy, packed, run-down White House briefing room has become something of a safety hazard over the years and may require a top-to-bottom renovation this summer, according to administration officials. President Bush, who sometimes holds news conferences in the room, recently made a personal pitch for a new, airier briefing room, taking some reporters by surprise.
But being temporarily relocated may be the least of their worries.
“My only concern is they use this as a Trojan horse to kick us out or shrink our space,” said White House reporter Ron Hutcheson, president of the White House Correspondents Association. “I am in the trust-but-verify mode. There is nothing in there that sets off the alarms that there is a nefarious plan here.”
I hope the renovation doesn’t diminish the access of the press corp to the administration…something valuable would be lost. And I really hope I don’t wake up one day to read about male-escorts in White House underground bunkers.