30 July, 2005

What I saw at the White House

Rhinocrisy recently cycled its Washington correspondent through Scott McClellan's cesspool, the White House briefing room. I shouldn't be so rude. Millions of people would love a chance to lay into the guy, so I should be gracious and accept my place at the table with an deep sense of responsibility and appreciation for those who put me there. But the heinousness of the Administration's politics and policies are not something I crave to be near. I prefer the anonymous bureaucrats who toil in ignominy, their honest labor betrayed by hypocritical, self-serving bosses. That sense was only deepened at the White House.

Security was easy enough. Rhinocrisy has its ways.

Then I walked down a block-long paved path, past a platform full of TV cameras and umbrellas against impending rain. Then there was the west wing of the White House, anda little white awning, and I see guy smoking outside so I know I'm in the right place.

Entering the room from the bright daylight, the biggest surprise is its size. It is perhaps 15 feet across and twice that deep -- at most a quarter the size I have sensed from watching it on TV. The room was obviously designed by someone with experience designing for TV; having the McClellan up a foot above the press -- and the cameras another 2 feet up, though not far back -- projects a sense of grandeur far beyond the room's actual scale.

Entering through the brilliant white wall and its pleasant old wood door, one finds a shoddy high-pile grey carpet on the floor, a decade past its prime, and 35 Johnson-era movie theater seats so impressed by lemon-chicken-fattened reporter butts that the best and brightest of the press corps must practically squat at the knees of St. Scotty.

I got there just on time at 9:35 for the 9:45 gaggle. To stage left, unfiltered daylight reflected off the country-club brilliance of the White House lawn. Starlings chirped audibly, their flight still permitted below the anti-aircraft guns, their voices clear over the vast auto-free zone north of the presidential palace. Light entered through single-pane windows with arched tops, like palladians without the side panels. That exterior wall retains its signs of class (in both senses of the word), but the press chamber itself was squalid if not gloomy, reminiscent of the billiards room in a cinder-block dormitory.

The building appeared to have rotted from within. The deeper one peered, the more dismal it looked. Reporters -- who all seemed to know each other in a cocktail-sipping, flirting sort of way -- sat and waited for Scotty, waited and waited, the room filling with make-up pasted broadcast babes and fresh-faced interns, all arriving long after the grizzled, uniquely jovial cameramen. Yes, men.

As people read newspapers and chatted, they absently glanced down the hall to where the press crew was unhurriedly finishing their preparations. It was fluorescent lit and low-ceilinged. Worn industrial matting on the floor, like the entry to a chicken-processing plant.

At length, out came a team of 5: Scotty and four aides. I didn't recognize their faces but I'm pretty sure that they included "senior White House source," "people briefed on the case," and "people close to the situation." (The latter "people" are, of course, each just one person.)

McClellan spoke very fast. Questioners were patient and indifferent to his bullshit. After 15 minutes, he abruptly said, "OK then," closed his leather trapper-keeper, and led his crew from the room, though questions could have kept going all day.

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