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Inside the White House

Rome Hartman | 16:16 UK time, Friday, 15 February 2008

Physically, the White House never seems to change. I've been going there for more than 20 years, off and on, and I'm always struck by the constancy of the setting. The formal areas are quite grand, of course, and meticulously maintained.

bbcwordnewsamerica140x100.jpgOur interview with President Bush yesterday was conducted in a room simply called the library, on the lower level; it's one of several rooms on either side of what's called the cross-hallway - a long corridor that runs from one end of the White House to the other. These rooms are often used for interviews and functions. When Matt Frei interviewed Laura Bush a few months ago, it was conducted just across the hall.

The White House has a permanent staff of conservators, and there are always a few on hand during set-up for an interview. They're the only people who are permitted to touch or move any of the furniture or artwork in any of these rooms, and watching them work always reminds me that while presidents come and go, the White House and its contents belong to the people of America.

Of course the atmosphere and feel of the place do change, a lot, depending on who's sitting in the Oval Office. I first covered the White House during Ronald Reagan's presidency, as a young producer for CBS News, and I remember being struck at the time by the formality of the place, and by a sense that it operated at quite a slow pace (perhaps I was just impatient).

When George HW Bush took over from Reagan, the atmosphere changed overnight. It was as if the pulse rate jumped by about 15 beats per minute, even as the sense of focus diminished a bit.

Later, Bill Clinton's White House had an even less formal feel, and if an interview was set for 1pm, you wouldn't be at all surprised if it actually began at 2pm.

frei_bush203.jpgGeorge W Bush, on the other hand, has a well-deserved reputation for punctuality and rigour; for wanting events to happen just when they've been scheduled, and to happen just as they've been designed. Yesterday, he strode into the library ten minutes early, greeted all of us crisply, and was ready for the cameras to roll 30 seconds after sitting down.

I expected him to march right back out as soon as the cameras stopped and the obligatory 'grip and grin' photo had been taken by his official photographer. But he didn't. He lingered, talking to Matt and members of our crew for about five minutes, and then to Matt alone in the map room - another one of those rooms off the cross-hallway - for another 20. (By the way, it had been made clear by the president's staff that any conversations other than when the camera was rolling carried "an expectation of privacy;" that's another way of saying "off the record"). On any president's daily schedule, that extra 25 minutes is an eternity. The fact that George W Bush spent that much unscheduled time with us seemed to surprise even his own staff.

By this time next year, there will be a different feel to the place… a different occupant, atmosphere, and pace. But that staff of careful conservators will be the same.


  • 1.
  • At 06:03 PM on 15 Feb 2008,
  • Alex Swanson wrote:

"They're the only people who are permitted to touch or move any of the furniture or artwork in any of these rooms . . . was ready for the cameras to roll 30 seconds after sitting down."

The man just doesn't care, does he.

  • 2.
  • At 06:04 PM on 15 Feb 2008,
  • James wrote:

An interesting insight, thanks for the post. The interview itself definitly gave an view of how GWB is currently thinking, even if you disagree with some of his views.

A president who arrives ten minutes early for an interview and has 25 spare minutes to spend chatting with Matt Frei? That's a lame duck president with little to do, surely.

  • 4.
  • At 05:10 PM on 16 Feb 2008,
  • Steven wrote:

Many people feel that this interview gave President Bush a very easy ride indeed.

I would like to know exactly what the mechanism was for getting the interview. Did all questions have to be pre-approved by President Bush's team before the interview would be granted? If that is indeed the case, the public should be clearly informed of that fact at the end of the interview.

I would really like an answer on this.

  • 5.
  • At 08:25 PM on 16 Feb 2008,
  • David Sketchley wrote:

Rome Hartman,

I wonder if you could answer two questions only.

Did the BBC have to provide the White House with a copy of the questions for approval before the interview?

If so do you think the public should be informed of this?


  • 6.
  • At 10:06 AM on 17 Feb 2008,
  • Dr Lee Salter wrote:

Given that the BBC has such a reputation for "hard talk" with British and foreign leaders, why on earth did Frei allow Bush to dictate the "interview"? Was Frei's timidity the cost of access or is it simply that he has no intention of being independently critical? The first part of the "interview" consists of Frei asking why Bush is so humble when he is so great, followed by, 'why don't you interfere around the world a little more', and then finished with two "thank yous"!

Two interjections that might have satisfied the licence-fee paying audience at home, and may have distinguished BBC from Fox in the US: 1. "when you say you are happy about Iraq, do you not feel any sorry for the million dead, innumerous injured and millions of refugees?" I would have though ALL viewers would have been interested in the response
2. "claiming you will always obey the law doesn't really matter when you are the one who makes it; Saddam didn't break his own laws for the same reason. Waterboarding was a method of torture when used in the sixteenth century and it is today. I am certain that when Saddam ordered the torture of people for the "security" of Iraq, he did it legally too. It is a historical shame that neither of these questions were asked.

  • 7.
  • At 11:15 PM on 17 Feb 2008,
  • Mark Webb wrote:

Were the questions submitted to the White House before the interview?

If so, would you state that at the beginning of the interview.

It seemed that no follow-ups were allowed and that the interview was overly friendly as a result.

I know that when RTE's Carol Coleman asked pertinent follow-ups, the White House complained.

  • 8.
  • At 09:49 AM on 18 Feb 2008,
  • Danny wrote:

The one eyed responses here say a lot about the contributors veiws.

GWB appears to have been relaxed, straightforward and friendly during this interveiw but it is clear that some people are not going to give him credit for anything.

If he is just a washed up lame duck then what is the point of him spending any time on interveiws at all? Why does he just sit behind the oval office desk with his feet up rather than waste his time?

A few people have asked if the questions in last week's interview with President Bush were coordinated with or approved by the White House. The answer is a simple, emphatic NO. There was no consultation, and the BBC would never have agreed to an interview under such circumstances. When George Bush sat down on Thursday, the only person who knew the questions to come was Matt Frei.

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