Standing on Ceremony

Is the press showing more respect for Obama than Bush?

A video, put together by Politico’s Patrick Gavin, is making the rounds showing two presidential visits to the White House briefing room. In one, George Bush arrives for a press conference in February 2008, and the press remains seated. In the second, from last Friday, Barack Obama surprises the press by appearing in the midst of the daily briefing. They stand to greet him. (Given that the press is supposedly in the tank for Obama, shouldn’t critics be happy they didn’t kneel?)

This may seem silly, but it’s symbolic: The discrepancy in treatment is all the proof a Republican needs to show that the press shows special deference to the new Democratic president. It’s a distorted picture, though. We stood all the time for President Bush. Reporters customarily do so to show respect for the office of the presidency. In the East Room of the White House, we stood not only when the president came in but to ask questions. Some reporters said thank you to the president even before asking their questions. This practice continues under President Obama.

There are different rules for the briefing room, though, which is the place both events on the video took place. It’s more informal. (CBS’s Mark Knoller talked to Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, who confirmed  that no offense was taken when the press didn’t stand in the briefing room.) It’s not that there is a no-standing policy, exactly, but more that the question is unresolved. The press didn’t stand for Bush in February but did when the president visited the briefing room for the last time. When he held press conferences in the Eisenhower Old Executive Office Building, the press did stand. Same with the Rose Garden. (On foreign trips, it was confusing. We stood when the host country’s press corps often didn’t, but once in Tanzania the roles were reversed for some reason, and the U.S. press had to stand quickly to catch up with the local Tanzanians.)

One reason reporters stay in their seats in the briefing room is that the space there is very tight. The cameramen and still photographers are in the back of the room and can’t get a clean shot of his few brief steps if the press is standing. (Listen to the cameras click wildly when Bush walks in.) The president is powerful and all, but it’s never wise to thwart the cameramen and still photographers. (This also goes for selecting movies on Air Force One, where during my years of traveling with Clinton and Bush they exercised total control over the viewing in the press cabin. Zoolander  and Barbershop  were particular favorites.)

Why, then, didn’t the members of the press stay in their seats when Obama walked in last Friday? Unlike the Bush planned press conference in February, Obama’s visit was a complete surprise (you hear fewer clicks because not every photographer is there), which meant the natural instinct to stand when a president enters the room may have kicked in as it did with Bush’s last visit. As you can see from the video, they also ruined the shot, which means standing not only invited grief from conservatives but from their colleagues, too.