Is a War Room Really a Room?

Democratic strategist and former Kerry communications director Stephanie Cutter has joined the Obama campaign.* Her responsibilities include heading up a “war room” for Michelle Obama. A campaign’s “war room” typically refers to its rapid response team. But is it really a room?

Yes, usually. Modern presidential campaigns almost always designate office space for strategists and press teams to communicate quickly and easily. It’s a place for first responders to monitor the news, write up press releases, talk to reporters, and communicate directly instead of over the phone or email.

Of course, war rooms have been around as long as war itself. Churchill built a reinforced bunker beneath his London offices for Cabinet members to convene during the Blitz of 1940. Stanley Kubrick immortalized the term in Dr. Strangelove with the line, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room!” But it wasn’t until Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign that the phrase entered wide usage in a presidential campaign context. It helped Clinton cultivate his image as a fighter on the trail and then in the White House, where he set up “war rooms” for cutting government waste and health care reform. “W e are going to work constantly, day and night, until we have a health care plan ready,” Clinton promised in 1993.

Even as rapid response relies more and more on BlackBerrys and cell phones, the campaigns still maintain a physical space for strategy grand and not-so-grand. Hillary Clinton’s campaign had a room set aside for the rapid response team, which they called the “war room.” Obama’s press operation sits together in a large room at the Chicago headquarters. A McCain spokesman characterized the Republican nominee’s war room as “a room that monitors all the media on a minute by minute basis.”

Some people are particularly attached to the notion of war room as physical place.  ” I get hired by so many corporate clients who want a room with clocks and maps and everything,” says Chris Lehane, a former spokesman for Al Gore who now heads a public-relations firm. “When you try to explain to them it’s just a concept and not a physical embodiment, they don’t want to hear it.”

*Correction: This post originally stated that Patti Solis Doyle would be heading up the war room for Michelle Obama.