BOB GARFIELD: Given their claustrophobia-inducing working conditions, it's a wonder that the White House press corps can be managed at all. Shortly after the Bush administration took charge, I dropped by the White House briefing room to see how the old hands have been able to handle it for so long.
WOMAN: Which Arab leaders are you going to call?
JAKE SIEWERT: We don't have anything scheduled, but we'll --the team will be in touch with Arab leaders, and, and with others--
WOMAN: Today or [...?...].
JAKE SIEWERT: The team will be -- I'm not sure he will, but if he does make calls, I'll let you know.
MAN: Do you think the president believes this is the--
BOB GARFIELD: As press secretary Jake Siewert spars with reporters about the details of the Middle East peace process, you can't help but notice that the White House press room -- this epicenter of the New World Order -- is a cramped and stagnant hole. From the familiar blue drape that hangs off-kilter behind the podium to the wobbly old movie theater seats the reporters sit on to the faint smell of electronic circuitry and stale sandwiches, this place seems more like the epicenter of -- oh, I don't know -- Flint, Michigan!
JOHN COCHRAN: The air isn't even very good in here. The ventilation [LAUGHS] system leaves a lot to be desired. The machines are often out of soft drinks, and the-- the food in the machines is not something you really want to eat.
BOB GARFIELD: ABC's John Cochran who is finishing his third tour of duty here is quick to scoff on environmental grounds alone at any characterization that the White House beat is full of glitter and dazzle. Likewise, Claire Shipman, his opposite number at NBC.
CLAIRE SHIPMAN: It can seem from the outside quite glamorous, and it can seem that there will be constant drama. I think the truth is a lot of the day in and day out work here at the White House can be boring, it can be tiring -- it's, it's tough!
BOB GARFIELD: So what are you eating?
CLAIRE SHIPMAN: I'm eating tofu and vegetables. It's our daily diet here at the White House.
BOB GARFIELD: Food on the fly, it turns out, is one of the few elements of the beat that a reporter can count on. Life in the bunker has all the elements of a hostage situation: cramped little cells for workspaces; sleep deprivation and, as Alex Keto of the Dow Jones Newswire observes, "every sadistic caprice of your captors."
ALEX KETO: You are here at the president's whim more or less. If he decides to go golfing, that's it; he goes golfing. It's hard to plan the day.
BOB GARFIELD: Of course leading the press corps from place to place, briefing to briefing, photo op to photo op is central to every administration's strategy for managing its message. That's why NBC's Claire Shipman says "fighting off boredom is the least of her battles."
CLAIRE SHIPMAN: I think the, the harder thing to fight is the message that the White House is constantly trying to hand out to you. It's hard to step back and say hey -- that might be their story, but that's not my story.
JOHN COCHRAN: You have to cover the White House both from within the White House and without.
BOB GARFIELD: ABC's John Cochran.
JOHN COCHRAN: You need to get away and-- talk to other people about the administration, because just because a president says this is something that's at the top of my agenda doesn't necessarily mean that's what should be at the top of the agenda.
BOB GARFIELD: That journalistic tactic may defeat the problem of not being able to see the forest for the trees, but there's that other problem -- being so lost in the woods in search of details or the long view or whatever that your competitor scoops you like a vat of ice cream. Ben Bradlee has supervised a White House correspondent or two in his years as executive editor of the Washington Post, and when I paid him a quick visit he had some ready advice for incoming correspondents on knowing what the competition is working on.
BEN BRADLEE: You can know what the - what each other is up to if it's-- you know, I mean what - for instance-- where's the New York Times' guy at the, at the photo op? If he-- Is he not there and you are? Ooo-- tilt!
BOB GARFIELD: So it's simple. All you need to do to cover the president is: surrender your personal freedom; resist being spun like a top; leave your post frequently while missing absolutely nothing; and never, ever, ever get scooped. All from this god-forsaken hovel atop a dried up swimming pool fetchingly-close-to, yet light-years-away-from the corridors of unimaginable power. In other words, it's basically impossible. On the other hand, virtually every major story in the world wends its way through these decrepit digs. Reporters here are genuinely as perhaps no other press corps anywhere eyewitnesses to history. Furthermore, there are perks! Back in the press room I spoke to CBS Radio veteran Mark Knoller who has been on the beat for every beat for every president since Gerald Ford.
BOB GARFIELD: What's the single coolest thing that has happened to you as a consequence of having this beat?
MARK KNOLLER: [SIGHS] Well, I, I, I guess it's the very first time that the president of the United States calls you by name.
BOB GARFIELD: And who was the first president to call you Mark?
MARK KNOLLER: Jimmy Carter.
BOB GARFIELD: And did you say: "Yo! My man!-- Jimmy!"--?
MARK KNOLLER: Didn't say it, but I might have thought it.
BOB GARFIELD:Knoller hastens to add that you get used to such ego stroking gestures and soon become immune to them. But clearly when the new blood shows up in the press room in two weeks, they'll discover that boredom and stale lunches are only part of the story. Ben Bradlee.
BEN BRADLEE: If you, if you're caught sitting there, doing nothing, playing cards--: Get out; get out or you, you know you're, you're in the wrong place. Get out of there. If, if you don't think covering the White House is interesting, you ought to be pumping gas!
JAKE SIEWERT: I should - maybe - can I announce that we'll have a briefing tomorrow morning? 11:00 a.m. Thank you.