Background Information For Opening Of New White House Press Briefing Room

The White House Historical Association’s Maria Downs put together a background briefer on the press briefing room. See it after the jump. And who wants to bet that Mark Knoller already has all of this memorized?


    President Richard M. Nixon announced closing down the White House indoor swimming pool to make room for larger press quarters. The pool would be drained and covered with flooring, to enable a future Chief Executive the option of reopening it. Washington Post, September 26, 1969

    “A standing joke since the Nixon administration was that the president might install a button on the podium that would activate a floor opening and dump the reporters into the pool.”

    . . . William B. Bushong, White House Historical Association


    The new “West Terrace Press Center’ cost the government $574,000. Former President Lyndon B. Johnson toured the new Press Room with President Richard M. Nixon after a breakfast meeting. Johnson called it “a wonderful improvement” and asked, “Is there the same improvement in the stories?” Nixon replied “It’s only a hope, I can assure you.” Washington Post, April 7, 1970

    The new press room threatened to create a minor crisis in Soviet-American relations. Tass, the official Soviet government news agency had not been given equal treatment with the other world news services. Tass had no desk and received only a telephone on the wall with a small counter space.
    Los Angeles Times , April 16, 1970

    Historical Notes: The President and the Press at the White House

    Since the earliest days of the nation, presidents have sought to convey information about themselves and their policies to the public. For the early presidents, newspapers were the vehicle of choice to communicate with the public.

    In 1800 Washington became the nation’s capital and the National Intelligencer was established marking the origins of White House coverage. As cities and communities across the young nation grew, newspapers formed a vital part of civic life and often had a strong partisan voice.

    A new era began about 1861 as the press changed its focus from serving presidential or party interests to getting a story quickly and attracting the ever-larger numbers of readers. During the latter half of the 19th century, the White House began to take shape as an institution with a professional executive staff. From second floor offices the president conducted the government’s business. Reporters staked out the north entrance, and the business stairs leading up to the executive offices, to interview cabinet members or other officials who might pause and discuss their meetings with the president.

    About 1901, the White House became a distinct beat for the press. Presidents began to hold regular meetings with reporters and by 1930 the position of the press secretary was established. Through the decades new forms of media have evolved including the radio, television, and the Internet, quickening the pace of the news cycle. The president’s message does not get far unless it passes through the press filter. A major part of White House operations today is devoted to getting information, ideas, and arguments out to the American people.

    1901-1918: Building of the West Wing – America’s entry into WWI

    A new 1902 Executive Office Building (later named the West Wing) was erected moving the executive offices from the second floor of the White House. The building included an innovation–a small pressroom.

    Reporter access during the Theodore Roosevelt administration changed markedly when he required cabinet members to channel all press requests through his private secretary.

    William H. Taft made little effort to promote himself and newsmen accused him of withholding news.

    Woodrow Wilson held the first formal, public press conference in 1913.

    1918-1933: The ’20s – the Stock Market Crash

    During the 1920s press conferences emerged as a main form of presidential communication with the American people.

    Warren Harding hired professional speechwriter Judson Welliver in 1923 and began to hold public press conferences twice a week.

    Calvin Coolidge was the first president to use radio to speak directly to the citizens of the nation, broadcasting monthly programs.

    Herbert Hoover used the radio only for traditional occasions, like the State of the Union address. He formally established the position of the press secretary hiring George Akerson in 1930.

    1933-1941: FDR and the Great Depression

    When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president, the modern period of president-press relations began. FDR held long and informal press conferences in the Oval Office and began the tradition of an annual press reception modeled after state diplomatic events.

    FDR was the first president to fully exploit radio as a force to promote his programs and policy.

    In 1933, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was the first wife of a president to hold an official press conference.

    1941-1952: WWII – the Korean War

    In 1945, Harry S. Truman proposed a major West Wing expansion that would add a studio and auditorium for press briefings. The plans lacked Congressional support and were not executed.

    Truman moved the meeting place for press conferences from the Oval Office to the Indian Treaty Room in the State Department (today’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building).

    Truman’s weekly press conferences became more scripted and usually included a formal presidential statement to outline positions or issues.

    1952-1963: The Cold War – Kennedy Assassination

    Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Press Secretary James Hagerty adopted full television coverage of the bi-weekly news conferences in 1955. Before the film was released to the public, Hagerty edited it to what was considered the most newsworthy portions.

    John F. Kennedy, long comfortable with print and electronic media, was the first president to hold a live televised news conference in 1961.

    Briefing books, practice sessions, and increasing amounts of staff time were needed to prepare for conferences that were now major news events as more than half the nation’s households had television sets.

    1963-1980: Vietnam – the Iranian Hostage Crisis

    Lyndon B. Johnson changed the nature of press conferences by including impromptu sessions where reporters asked questions rather than the formal forums held in the past.

    In 1969, a new press briefing room was created in the west terrace by covering over a swimming pool installed for President Franklin Roosevelt.

    Formal press conferences were held infrequently during the Nixon administration and those that were held were highly contentious because of the Vietnam War and Watergate.

    The Office of Communications was established in 1972 to reach out to the nation’s press beyond those with White House credentials, including out-of-town reporters, special interest and foreign press.

    Gerald Ford re-established regular meetings with the press after Watergate and attempted to establish a normal relationship with reporters. He held regular monthly press conferences and conducted interviews with leading journalists and television news anchors, such as Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, and Barbara Walters.

    Jimmy Carter maintained regular monthly press conferences in the Old Executive Office Building and expanded his press contacts by scheduling bi-monthly meetings with out- of- town journalists in the Cabinet Room.

    1980-1992: Ronald Reagan – the Gulf War

    Ronald Reagan preferred to present himself and his policies in venues other than a formal presidential press conference. He held about six conferences a year, usually in the East Room during the early evening hours.

    George H.W. Bush made frequent use of press conferences in the press briefing room during his first three years in office, holding on average about three per month. He also instituted the practice of holding joint press sessions with visiting heads of state.

    1993-Present: Modern Days

    Bill Clinton and George W. Bush followed the practice established by President George H.W. Bush of holding press conferences with foreign leaders. Reporters claim the frequent use of joint conferences restrictive, as the expectation is that the questions will revolve around the work of the two leaders. The number of questions is also frequently limited.

    In 1995, Press Secretary Mike McCurry started the practice of televising the daily press briefings.

    By the 1990s, the dynamics of coverage was impacted by the 24 hour news cycle. Today the news is reported at regular intervals both day and night by rapidly growing numbers of cable television news organizations.

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