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Inside the Veal Pen

whgaggle1.jpg There’s a saying about diaries how whenever you have the most to say, you end up also having the least time to write it. That’s sort of our feeling about Monday, our first day at the White House: It’s two days later, and we’re still cranking through pages and pages of notes we took during the day. This will probably be the final post from the first visit, although we look forward to returning soon and filling out some other observations.

Many of the (numerous) press stories concerning Monday’s visit summed up our response by saying we were “underwhelmed” and “unimpressed.” Neither word really captures the overall reaction. It was, after all, the White House. It’s hard not to be impressed by the residence and office of the leader of the free world. It’s hard not to feel a little awe sitting in the famous briefing room, beamed daily live around the world, watching Marines in full dress uniform step smartly by outside and mix with Secret Service officers with machine guns and sniper rifles–especially when Marine One landed on the South Lawn to ferry the President away.

What did shock us, for lack of a better word, were the subpar working conditions where the journalists live and work. As one correspondent pointed out, the press room is a good place to scrimp on capital improvements. It’s not like any administration wants to make the press super comfortable so they’ll stay longer. A certain level of disarray and claustrophobia helps encourages people to not settle in too much, and remind the press that they’re guests in the President’s house.

Full report on the chaotic scene post-jump.

The press area is divided into the briefing room, where most of the camera crews and sound techs hang out in between filming, and the workspace which one enters by passing out the back of the briefing past between on one side a sign that says “No Tours Past This Point” and on the other side a cabinet filled with breathing apparatus for reporters to use in case of fire or terrorist attack.

The rear workspace, home to most of the major print reporters and the three networks, is a jumble of coats, newspapers, and laptops-it’s hard to tell sometimes whether reporters are actually sitting on top of each other. The door to the AP’s White House bureau/closet, home of Terry Hunt and Nedra Pickler among others, is decorated with a collection of some remarkably (and purposefully) ugly ties. Disorganized piles of reference books and reports dot the room and the side offices, and a tattered historical poster of the U.S. Presidents decorates the wall of CBS’ booth.

The other main work area is in the basement, next to where the swimming pool was before it was covered over to hold the press, where we found ourselves Monday morning post gaggle as we explored looking for a place to get online.

The hazardous path involved clambering over piles of yesterday’s newspapers on the floor and passing on the stairs a giant wall hanging containing the 50 pens Lyndon Johnson used to sign the Great Society legislation into law. We weren’t quite sure what to make of its placement: Has it always been there or is it symbolic of the way this administration feels about the Great Society programs?

We asked an unidentified and harried reporter working downstairs whether he had any suggestions for how to get online. “Ummm, if you have a phone line, you could just steal one of these empty desks,” he said, pausing before adding, “but I didn’t tell you to do that.” Deal. After procuring a phone cord, we settled in to blog on the wooden plank desk deep in the White House bowels.

The basement is home to a number of news organizations, including CNN, Fox News, and Bloomberg, and most of the offices are no larger than phone booths. We couldn’t believe people actually spent the day in them. Fox and CNN were lucky: They had offices about twice the size of a couch. What spacious luxury!

Later, outside, as we were talking on the “sun-soaked” White House drive, AFP’s Olivier Knox explained that the press offices were the “veal pen where they keep me so I don’t develop unsightly muscle mass.” Indeed you would be hard pressed to fit a telephone booth in most of the offices, and the luxurious and spacious TV network offices probably couldn’t fit a normal-sized couch.

Back upstairs, ABCNews’s Ann Compton took us on a tour of the West Wing that’s accessible to the press. Beyond the press briefing room, to the left of the podium, is the door into the lower press office. We’d heard references all last week to “lower press” and it made little sense, except now we realized it was not only where the lower level press staff sat but it was also, in fact, physically lower than the rest. A few steps up and then a ramp mark the transition around the corner to the office of Press Secretary Scott McClellan and “upper press.”

Standing outside McClellan’s office and pointing to the door to the Oval Office, only perhaps fifty feet away, Compton explained, “There’s no press corps anywhere in the world that is allowed to get this close.” She said that the White House press corps, being just steps from the West Wing, gets unparalleled access to the nation’s chief executive compared to other media and heads of state around the world.

In between the morning gaggle, the mid-day press briefing, and the “full lid” at the end of the day, a steady stream of reporters with questions pass back and forth from their work area up to McClellan’s office. Indeed, despite the daily stonewalling, it does make us breath easier knowing that reporters can step into the vaunted the West Wing anytime.

When we commented to McClellan about the reporters’ workplace, he said he’s started having talks with the White House Correspondents Association about renovating the press area and making it a wee bit nicer, but that such a project would likely entail moving the press corps across the street–something no one (except perhaps the entire staff of the White House) is particularly keen about.

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