WASHINGTON – That President Bush is a real cut-up. And the president of the declining public approval ratings acted as if slicing the red-white-and-blue ribbon of the renovated White House press room Wednesday morning was a shear delight.
"The air conditioner works well. I hope the facility meets your needs," he said. "The fact that you were working in substandard conditions really wasn't right."
"I think it's going to benefit future presidents and future White House press corps, to be working in modern conditoins," Bush said. "It's going to make your life better and it's going to make the life of future presidents better also."
Steve Skully of C-SPAN, president of the White House Correspondents Association, noted that "we still stand above a swimming pool used by six presidents. ... Nowhere else is there a working press office this close to the head of state."
"A year after moving out, we are moving back," said Scully.
At least the media can put aside fears that the renovation was a ruse to evict it permanently from the White House.
The president and his wife, Laura — who took a personal, active interest in the massive project — went together to preside over the ribbon-cutting for the sparkling upgrade to both the guts and face of the famous space.
Media attendance in the renovated press room was severely limited to make space for White House staff and construction workers. Later, White House press secretary Tony Snow was to hold his first daily briefing in the new room.
Less than 24 hours before Bush wielded his scissors, though, the room was still a work-in-progress.
Construction debris littered the floors. Drop cloths covered seats while painters lacquered door frames. Fixed cutaway camera positions had to be relocated. Workers scurried about hanging shelves and drilling holes. A lack of audio was just being fixed, 12 days after the press was required to move into its yet-to-be-completed workspaces behind the briefing room.
Amid the last-minute chaos, the look of the place generally was praised. The media's work quarters are sleek and uniform — no-frills, industrial-style desks and booths of tan, silver and black. There even are marble walls, granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances.
But the briefing room backdrop, intended to be a high-tech wonder appropriate for a modern, 24-hour TV world, was widely panned. Its layered frosted-glass panels and two 45-inch flat-screen monitors, flanked by fake white columns and featuring rotating decals depending on the speaker, were derided for lending a gaudy, game-show aura to the most visible face of the White House.
The cost of the nearly yearlong renovation — which took in the briefing room, media working quarters and one section of the White House press office — is unknown. Early estimates were around $20 million. But the time frame, originally envisioned to be three months, swelled to nine months and then more. And weeks more work may be required.
The improvements are many, to a room that was a tourist's disappointment in real life — much trashier, smaller and shabbier than it appeared on television. Among them:
—Wider, taller and sturdier blue-leather briefing room chairs replace the old stained-and-duct-taped upholstered ones. Each of the 49 seats, one more than before, also now has Internet, phone and power connections.
—The former hot television lights have become an expensive array of cooler, more environmentally friendly ones.
—The area below the briefing room, for years a swimming pool built in 1933 for Franklin D. Roosevelt, is now a technician's dream — rack after rack of video equipment and 570 miles of cable.
—New microphones mounted in the ceiling balance sound that is fed into a state-of-the-art audio system, to pipe the president's or press secretary's voice throughout the facility.
It wasn't aesthetics, however, but aging utility infrastructure, that drove the renovation. Asbestos was removed. An antiquated cooling system was ditched for a more powerful and energy efficient one.
During construction, the presidential press corps occupied temporary quarters across the street, the first time in 105 years it had been based outside the White House grounds.