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War in the Briefing Room

Usually more rowdy during peacetime, White House press conferences take on somber intensity during Gulf crisis, as reporters grapple with implications. WASHINGTON INSIDERS

`TWO minute warning!'' rumbles the loudspeaker in the White House briefing room. The press has just been told the President himself is unexpectedly coming out to speak. It was the first Presidential press conference after the Persian Gulf war started, and it has the effect of an air raid siren. Suddenly the scene looks like fighter planes scrambling to get off the runway or a submarine crew hearing ``Dive!'' Everyone rushes into position, vaulting over chairs, with notebooks, tape recorders, and cameras on full alert.

The network White House correspondents leap up on their chairs, facing the cameras mounted at the back of the room, and begin taping their preceeds.

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The door opens. President George Bush strides in wearing a steel-gray suit and grave expression. He makes a statement warning against euphoria over the first stages of the war against Iraq, and then takes questions about the fallout from the Iraqi attack on Israel the night before.

He also praises ``our fighting men and women'' and revisits an old theme - the tension between press objectivity and the press conference used as a pulpit. He says, ``I saw in the paper a comment by one who worried from seeing demonstrations here and there in this country on television, that that expressed the will of the country. And so to those troops over there, let me just take this opportunity to say, your country is supporting you.''

While he speaks the tension in the room is thick as flack, as reporters' hands shoot up wildly for recognition. Every time the President gestures, cameras click like massed castanets. This is the White House briefing room at war, and when the briefing ends everyone bails out for deadlines.

``The briefing room is occupied 24 hours a day by reporters waiting for any scrap of information they can pick up from here,'' says ABC News White House correspondent Britt Hume later. ``Normally when the White House says there's a [news] lid on, you can leave, and there'll be no further announcements,'' he says. ``Last night, after a full lid was imposed, there were two White House statements issued. There was no danger anybody was going to miss it, because it looked like RFK Stadium in here last night.''

Mr. Hume is talking about the difference between war and peace in the briefing room. You could see it start a few hours before the bombing of Iraq began last Wednesday. It was so quiet in the beige and blue room you could hear a press pass drop.

Presidential press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, looking uncharacteristically grim, marched to the podium that bears the presidential seal and briefed the crowd in front of the blue velvet curtain.

In the tense session that followed, Mr. Fitzwater said, ``Indeed, we are approaching the hard decisions that would have to be made for the use of force.''

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Then Helen Thomas, the United Press International's veteran White House reporter, piped up and wrote the lead for everyone's story with her next question: ``Are you saying the war is going to start today?'' And it did, at 7 p.m.

Peacetime briefings, no matter who is in power, have a rowdy, adversarial quality at the White House. They have been compared to feeding time at the zoo, as the press secretary tosses out chunks of the raw meat called news. And they've been likened to a bullfight in which the press secretary waves the red cape and the reporters charge.

At its best, it's like a club that reporters join for a couple of hours daily to fence with words on issues of the day.

``Semantics!' Marlin Fitzwater complained at another recent briefing when reporters lunging toward the truth asked him over and over about the shading of difference between President Hussein ``laying down his arms'' in Kuwait or actually ``surrendering.'' ``Lay down his arms means surrender,'' Fitzwater said evenly.

Peacetime briefings can be terribly funny, as when President Carter's Jody Powell pelted the press with his southern-fried humor - or terribly vitriolic, as when President Nixon's Ron Ziegler stonewalled about Watergate.

But in this sudden war, the White House briefing takes on a mood of gravity a lack of its usual adversarial nature, as those in the room unite to grapple with what's happening in the war and how to get the most accurate news to the public.

The research and quick intelligence of many of the press comes into sharp focus as they zero in with the right questions.

Time magazine columnist Hugh Sidey says, ``After the hostilities started, I think [the briefings] are a good deal more serious ... I would say it is a little more somber, there isn't much levity ....'' a little bit. ... It just becomes bigger, more intense, and more serious.''

Sparky Sarah McClendon of the McClendon News Service, who has covered these briefings for decades, says, ``There's a different atmosphere in peacetime and now. There are an awful lot more people now, ... the place is packed, even in the early morning hours. And it's just very tense.''

Julia Malone, White House correspondent for Cox Newspapers, says, ``Now, there's a very solemn Marlin, who is famous for his glib humor. You see none of that now or almost none. The questions, too, seem more serious, they're less picky ... they just want to know what the facts are.''

War, peace, and news aside, there are some unchanging verities at the briefing room, which was a swimming pool until President Nixon filled it with words.

There are only 48 beige and blue movie seats for regulars, with media names stamped in brass. The overflow crowd hunkers down or plasters itself against the walls, between the cables, stepladders, tripods, and other impedimentia of news.

Battalions of cameras line the rear of the room, where four TV sets are always on. Dozens of TV ceiling lights flood the room with artificial brightness.

The teal-blue rug is covered with old newspapers, snack and candy bar wrappers. The media, like the army, travels on its stomach, and there are intense pre-briefing negotiations on chicken soup with curry vs. pizza or eggs rolls for lunch.

And there's always the tough, wisecracking humor of the press.

``What do you hear from ``Lawrence of Arabia?'' one reporter asks about another.

The press corps, too, is now checked through intensified security. At the White house Press gate, reporters and crews have to show their press passes face-side-up before they are clicked in through the iron gate. Or out. Inside the security booth, there is a heightened air of tension as even regular card holders go through metal detectors and have their bags searched by hand.

Down the road to the briefing room, there is a patch of green lawn to the right of the White House, where which looks like a media yard. nearly a dozen striped beach umbrellas are tilted over TV cameras to protect against the elements when TV stand-ups are done.

There are tripods, step ladders, long snakes of red, green, grey, and black cables.

Inside the briefing room, the outside is sealed off, except when the door opens, and you can hear the almost ceaseless war protests drums beating almost ceaselessly in Lafayette Park across the street.

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