Tension at the White House Press Room

“. . .  maybe you’re already over there. I was JUST about to leave…. Wish they’d get their act together!”

That was an e-mail I got from a colleague in the White House press corps last Wednesday informing me that the briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs scheduled for 1:30 was postponed until 2:30.  The time of the re-scheduling notice was 1:15 and, yes, my colleague was almost correct:  I had already cut short a lunch and hopped on the metro.  Upon arriving, I learned the meaning of the old bromide “Hurry up and wait.”  With my editors waiting for me to complete my weekly political column for the print edition, I could not wait and had to turn around and leave the James Brady Briefing Room for my office.

Others who have additional assignments along with covering the White House were forced to do the same.  As one colleague with whom I walked back told me, “I know this is the day after [Cabinet appointee Tom] Daschle withdrew and the stimulus package is coming up.  But I’ve got to get work done today.”  So we left together and reached the same conclusion:  if you don’t have a permanent desk in the back of the briefing room and you are not a full-time White House correspondent, you are going to be at the mercy of what are becoming almost regular—even daily—changes and disruptions in the briefing schedule.

“When they do stick to the usual 1:30 briefing, that means you try to find a chair and wait until 1:45 for Gibbs to come out,” a frustrated radio correspondent told me.  On enough occasions since January 20th for the correspondents to take notice and starting grousing, what happened Wednesday has happened.  The session is postponed and those of us who don’t have the luxury of waiting for have had to move on.

Even the storied Goyal of Asia today was spotted shaking his head Wednesday and seemingly in a funk because his inevitable questions about India and Pakistan had to be put off and he had to find something to do for an hour.

I know, I know.  This is all “inside baseball” again and you really could care less about the things that make my colleagues in the White House Press Corps and me uptight. ( I do read your e-mails).  

But what is going on is less about my colleagues and me than about the Obama White House and the media in general.  Not since John F. Kennedy and Press Secretary Pierrre Salinger set up shop in 1961 has there been a romance between the press corps and the President and his spokesman as there is with Obama and Gibbs today.  One can see it in the overflow crowds that have packed Gibbs’ daily briefings since January 20th.  Even when he has made us wait the usual fifteen minutes and even when these hour-long delays have come up of late, Gibbs still draws a crowd. (A number of my colleagues are still impressed I actually got a seat and got in two questions to Gibbs on Monday of this week).

But the little things and minor irritations are beginning to be noticed and discussed.  A number of those who have had to pass on a delayed press conference are from publications and radio and TV outlets considered sympathetic to the new President.  In addition, where George W. Bush’s four press secretaries divided up their time with the reporters between a gaggle (early morning session off-camera) and the afternoon briefing, Gibbs does it all in one swoop.  The afternoon session, which sometimes goes on for more than hour, is “the whole shooting match.”

And this wreaks havoc with a number of us.  When Dana Perino or the late Tony Snow had their two-a-day session, I could divide up my time, make one session, and work on other areas of my beat at another time.   Not so under the new order.

To be sure, Robert Gibbs is a good man.  He is pleasant, dismissive to no one, a bit hesitant, but learning the ropes.  However, forewarned is forearmed:  even reporters have feelings and obligations and accommodating them can go a long way toward surmounting other misuderstandings with the President’s top spokesman.  Tony Snow knew this better than most.  He could make up for delays and rescheduled briefings with warmth, private talks, and walks with reporters where he sometimes slipped nuggets of news.  I hope Robert Gibbs does the same—and soon.