WASHINGTON – The White House press corps took up residence Monday outside the iron-gated presidential compound for the first time in more than 100 years to make way for repairs on their well-worn quarters.
For the next nine months or so, reporters will cover President Bush from offices on two floors of the White House conference center alongside Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the West Wing. White House officials arranged for the building of temporary offices for news outlets, and set up a new briefing room.
"This is the first time reporters have had to cover the president from outside the compound," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist who specializes in the presidency at Towson University in Maryland. Reporters have had space in the West Wing since 1902 although they have been temporarily relocated to the Old Executive Office Building for major building projects, such as a renovation in the early 1980s during the Reagan presidency, she said.
Even before 1902, reporters had a table outside the senior staff official's office on the second floor of the White House mansion, down the hall from the president's office, Kumar said.
"Well, isn't this cozy?" press secretary Tony Snow said at his inaugural briefing, with reporters practically sitting at his feet in the crammed, new briefing room. Snow and his deputy, Dana Perino, continue to work in the West Wing but walk across the street for briefings.
A small pool of about 14 reporters, cameramen and photographers remain on the White House grounds in a trailer next to the Old Executive Office Building to cover photo opportunities.
The renovations — including asbestos removal, new air conditioning and new seating in the press briefing room — are expected to take around nine months although some in the press worry the project will take longer, or that reporters might never return to the White House. It originally was envisioned as a three-month project.