President Bush inaugurated the refurbished White House briefing room on Wednesday, showing off a sparkling upgrade to both the guts and face of the famous space.
“Welcome back to the West Wing,” he said to the presidential press corps, assembled in the room for the first time since the massive renovation began 11 months ago. ‘We missed you – sort of.”
Bush apparently decided not to take that particular line of humor much further, sticking mostly to appreciation for the role of the press and acknowledgements of their need for better than the “substandard conditions” of before. Though he joshed that reporters’ questions represent “verbal bullets” and that he doesn’t always like their stories, one line in the president’s prepared remarks had been crossed out: “There’s no truth to the rumor some of those new seats can be ejected by pressing a button at Tony’s podium.”
Bush seemed most impressed by the new super-powered cooling system, remarking on an improvement that means “a fellow like me will feel comfortable coming in here answering a few questions without losing 20 pounds.” Indeed, the antiquated old air conditioner had not nearly enough capacity – and condensation tended to leak from the ceiling vents when it was particularly overworked.
The president and his wife, Laura – who took a personal, active interest in the project – cut a red-white-and-blue ribbon to formally open the room. The ceremony was timed for airing on network morning shows, but media attendance was severely limited to make space for White House staff and construction workers.
Steve Scully of C-Span, president of the White House Correspondents Association, offered something rarely handed from the press to a president: a “thank you.” And he noted that the move-back finally puts to rest fears that the renovation was a ruse to permanently evict the media from the White House.
During the yearlong project, White House reporters occupied temporary quarters across the street, the first time in 105 years it had been based outside the White House grounds.
Later, White House press secretary Tony Snow holds his first daily briefing in the new room.
But though the room is now back in use and journalists reoccupied their new work quarters behind it 13 days ago, the end of construction still could be a couple of weeks away.
Less than 24 hours before Bush wielded his scissors, the briefing room was still a work-in-progress.
Construction debris littered the floors. Drop cloths covered seats while painters lacquered door frames. Fixed cutaway camera positions had to be relocated. Workers scurried about hanging shelves and drilling holes. A lack of audio was just being fixed.
Amid the last-minute chaos, the look of the place generally was praised. The media’s work quarters, though yet to be completed, are sleek and uniform – no-frills, industrial-style desks and booths of tan, silver and black. There even are marble walls, granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances.
But the briefing room backdrop, intended to be a high-tech wonder appropriate for a modern, 24-hour TV world and closely guarded – literally – until the unveiling, was widely panned. Its layered frosted-glass panels and two 45-inch flat-screen monitors, flanked by fake white columns and featuring rotating decals depending on the speaker, were derided for lending a gaudy, game-show aura to the most visible face of the White House.
The cost of the nearly yearlong renovation – which took in the briefing room and media working quarters as well as one section of the White House press office – is unknown. Early estimates were around $20 million. But the time frame, originally envisioned to be three months, swelled to nine months and then more with many unanticipated problems.
The improvements are many, though, to a room that was a tourist’s disappointment in real life – much trashier, smaller and shabbier than it appeared on television. Among them:
-Wider, taller and sturdier blue-leather briefing room chairs replace the old stained-and-duct-taped upholstered ones. Each of the 49 seats, one more than before, also now has Internet, phone and power connections.
-The former hot television lights have become an expensive array of cooler, more environmentally friendly ones.
-The area below the briefing room, for years a swimming pool built in 1933 for Franklin D. Roosevelt, is now a technician’s dream – rack after rack of video equipment and 570 miles of cable.
-New microphones mounted in the ceiling balance sound that is fed into a state-of-the-art audio system, to pipe the president’s or press secretary’s voice throughout the facility.
It wasn’t aesthetics, however, but aging utility infrastructure, that drove the renovation. In addition to a new cooling and electrical system, asbestos was removed.