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.”