WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush reopened the White House briefing room on Wednesday after an 11-month makeover, providing a sleek new high-tech stage for the theater and spin of presidential politics.
“Welcome back to the West Wing. We missed you — sort of,” Bush joked as workmen put the finishing touches on the multimillion-dollar renovation project.
But he might just as well have added “no questions, please.” With the press corps assembled in the storied room for the first time since last summer, Bush offered little more than quips, smiles and the cutting of a ceremonial ribbon.
Journalists had been banished since last August to a temporary press center across the street while the dilapidated 37-year-old press area was stripped down and rebuilt.
Gone is the asbestos in the ceilings, the coffee-stained carpeting, the sauna-like temperatures and presumably the rats who made occasional appearances.
The space is just as cramped as before but it has been spruced up with ergonomic work stations, super-powered air conditioning and miles of hidden fiber-optic cables.
The new podium from which the press secretary will brief reporters is framed by two white columns and flanked by twin flat screen monitors to illustrate the administration’s official line. Luxurious new chairs have replaced the old broken-down seats.
The new look creates a modern, TV-friendly set for daily sparring between journalists and White House officials, sessions that critics say increasingly lack substance as Bush tries to stay relevant in his final 18 months in office.
The facelift was long overdue for a press corps that had outgrown its workspace since the advent of 24-hour cable news.
But some grumbled that one thing likely will remain unchanged — the rarity with which Bush conducts news conferences compared to his recent predecessors.
Bush batted away a question of whether he felt he had been open with the press. “I’m going to cut the ribbon. Then you yell. I cogitate — and then smile and wave,” he said to laughter.
The briefing room was built in 1970 by Richard Nixon over an old swimming pool installed by Franklin Roosevelt, used regularly by John F. Kennedy but underutilized by subsequent administrations. The pool still remains down below but is now jammed with cabling and electronics.