Inside the White House Press Corps

WASHINGTON – Several years ago I was sitting at a hotel bar in Waco, Texas, with Ron Hutcheson, then the White House correspondent for the old Knight-Ridder News Service, simultaneously watching the Daytona 500 and competing in a video trivia game.

Naturally the discussion turned to the job of covering the president of the United States, George W. Bush, who was at that moment busily clearing brush out at his ranch in nearby Crawford, Texas, leaving reporters with little to do but watch race cars circle a track, answer dumb questions and drink beer.

“Hutch,” deservedly one of the most respected members of the corps, took that opportunity to offer a most straightforward description of what it’s like to be a White House correspondent.

“The best part of the job,” he said, “is telling people you have it.”

Indeed, unless your idea of fun is working with dozens of others congregated in an area about the size of a Metro car, tripping over television wires with almost no access to the individual you’re supposed to be bird-dogging on a minute-by-minute basis, then being a White House correspondent probably isn’t the job path you ought to seek.

Yet it’s almost unheard of for anyone to decline. Only the best – present company excluded – get the job and, as Hutch said, you can lord it over everyone else. So when the brass at Scripps Howard News Service ordered me to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in 2000 I raced over before they could change their minds. I stayed six years.

One of the first things a new correspondent discovers is that the White House press corps remains one of the world’s last remaining caste systems, something that seems to be modeled after the raj days in India. It’s the networks, along with heavy journalism hitters like The Washington Post and The New York Times, that call the tune while almost everyone else scrambles to collect the crumbs off the floor.

Correspondents are only visitors in the White House – there’s nothing in the First Amendment that says the nation’s chief executive has to turn over a section of his crib to a bunch of ill-mannered ne’er-do-wells with no viable job skills just so they can pepper him or his staff with unwanted questions. Most negotiations regarding accessibility and opportunity are conducted between the office of the White House press secretary, that being Jay Carney, a former scribe himself, and the White House Correspondents Association, currently headed by Ed Henry of Fox News.

Those two outfits iron out most problems that arise although, reporters being reporters, most of them just swear loudly and repeatedly about any perceived inconvenience and move on. Things like a spot in the 49-seat James S. Brady Press Briefing Room – built over the old White House pool — are coveted and held on to like you would grasp your baby’s hand on a crowded street. The correspondents association makes the seating assignments. When one opens up, if a news organization, for instance, determines it no longer desires to cover the White House – an occurrence of increasing frequency – a high-stakes scramble to grab the available chair ensues between those organizations that heretofore had to stand in the wings.

Face time with the press secretary or his/her representative arrives once, sometimes twice, a day in the briefing room if the president is in town. If he’s traveling, the press secretary will take questions from those on Air Force One in a format known as a gaggle – informal, nuts-and-bolts with no video cameras.

Ari Fleischer, while he was President George W. Bush’s press secretary, often held morning gaggles in his office, later moved to the briefing room when space proved tight. Recently, Carney noted a number of correspondents have requested that off-camera gaggles be held more frequently, adding, “I’m happy to oblige.”

“We’re going to do this — for those of you who aren’t familiar with it — kind of try to, in keeping with tradition — efficient, no seven questions for members of the first row before we get to move it around,” Carney told members of the press corps on Jan. 24. “Maybe one way that I think this has been done is sort of one topic per person so we can move around, try to do this in 20 minutes, and so you guys can get back to work.”

There have, on occasion, been other opportunities with few restrictions, especially during the administration of President Bill Clinton when press secretary Mike McCurry would attempt to sneak out for a quick smoke and provide answers to questions with a quick wit.

(Most correspondents, for what it’s worth, consider McCurry the gold standard when it comes to press secretaries even though he would sometimes complain to the bosses of those he felt were not giving the administration a fair shake. All press secretaries have been known to do that.)

A formal press briefing usually is slated for early in the afternoon. Carney and others before him take questions from correspondents in the front two rows where the power hitters are found before recognizing the proletariat in the back. Basically, these sessions begin and end on the press secretary’s whim.

Occasionally there are fireworks. David Gregory of NBC News famously got into it hot and heavy with Scott McClellan, Fleischer’s successor, during a briefing after Hurricane Katrina.

A little more than a year ago, acting on complaints from some members of the press corps, the White House Correspondents Association met with Carney to voice concern about instances of harsh treatment. The Washington Post reported that one of those instances involved Sharyl Attkisson of CBS News, who revealed on Oct. 4, 2011, during an interview on The Laura Ingraham Show, that “a guy from the White House…literally screamed at me” regarding her reporting on Operation Fast and Furious.

“They think I’m unfair and biased by pursuing it,” she said.

And then there’s pool duty, which occurs in various forms. If the president meets with some dignitary in the Oval Office – which is smaller than it looks – the entire White House press corps couldn’t cram into the room with a shoehorn. Therefore, about once a month, perhaps more frequently, news organizations representing print, television and radio media pull pool duty. Representing the entire correspondents association, the pool is hauled into the office to witness the occasion and almost immediately hauled out. Sometimes the president and his guest even deign to answer questions. The event is faithfully reported by the pool with the information distributed to interested media parties.

But that’s not all the pool does. Sometimes, for instance, the president gets hungry and decides to roam outside the confines of the White House. Or he has an in-town fundraiser he needs to attend or he wants to go to a party at someone’s private residence. In such an event, the pool tags along just in case something of consequence happens.

It hardly ever does. Meaning the pool sits away from the action and waits. And waits. And waits.

Bush, for instance, has a famous taste for Tex-Mex fare and would occasionally set out to partake, leaving the pool parked outside while he enjoyed the chili rellenos inside. On such occasions, the pool had about as great an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the most powerful man in the world as someone passing by on her bicycle.

Presidential press conferences are a bit different. News organizations must request permission to attend and their representatives are seated, usually in the East Room, wherever the staff wants them to sit.

During one such occasion relatively early in his first administration, Bush revealed a secret that had long been suspected – the press office provided him with a list of which correspondents to call on – presumably those who might be considered safe.