WASHINGTON, July 30: After 35 years of grave announcements, political hardball and just plain old spin, the curtain goes down this week on the White House press room.
The broken-down chairs will be removed, the coffee-stained carpet ripped out, the last sandwich wrapper swept up and the vermin chased out -- namely, the reporters, photographers and camera crews who make the place a second home.
This is the place the television cameras do not show, at least in detail, when they beam White House news of note and lesser note from the presidential spokesman, who stands at a podium with a slick-looking backdrop of blue curtains and the official seal.
It is not quite a complete tear-down but pretty close. The briefing room and adjacent press offices, a tight warren of cubbyholes, will be torn out and only the walls and floor left standing. It will be the most extensive makeover since the facility was built in 1970 over Franklin Roosevelt's swimming pool.
For anywhere from seven to nine months and perhaps longer, the White House press corps will be disconnected from the mother ship, exiled across Pennsylvania Avenue to temporary quarters, where the spokesman's briefings will take place.
The old briefing room is officially unplugged on Friday. A proper send-off is being prepared for Wednesday with former presidential press secretaries in attendance.
The main reason for the work is to install a new air conditioning system and address a feared asbestos problem.
Some paranoid reporters fear President George W Bush will fulfill a dream of many presidents and permanently dislodge the press and loosen up some prime office space close to the boss.
Steve Scully of C-SPAN, president of the White House Correspondents Association, said the press corps will be vigilant in making sure ''the Bush White House keeps its promise to move us back in a timely basis.'' ''We have no reason to believe we will not be back in our old space next spring, but we're reporters, so we always approach things with a healthy dose of skepticism,'' he said.
A TIGHT SQUEEZE, WITH FUNGUS TOO
Officials from Bush on down say the press corps will be back -- and with newfangled, fiber-optic accessories. The last makeover was in 1981 and the place is like a dingy garage compared to the museum-like White House itself. White House spokesman Tony Snow said the cramped nature of the briefing room has its dividends as it brings the press secretary and reporters close up and encourages a spirit of collegiality.
''The good news is that once this thing is renovated you'll still have that proximity but you'll also have a functioning heating and air conditioning system along with wiring that meets code, and carpets that do not contain every known bacterium and fungus,'' he said.
Back in the old days, reporters lounged in leather chairs in the West Wing lobby, then darted to a bank of phones to file reports in what is now the national security adviser's office.
President Richard Nixon got tired of having his visitors accosted by the press, and workers slapped together a room in a corridor linking the White House residence to the West Wing.
Thus was born a room where famous news events have been announced and political spin found a prominent launching pad.
With the end of an era nigh, White House veterans are recalling some of the more dramatic events and jousting that took place in the venerable old briefing room.
''The iconic moments usually relate to stories, in the sense that the briefing room was often the place you heard it first,'' said former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater.
In the high tension on the day President Ronald Reagan was shot and wounded in 1981 by would-be assassin John Hinckley, then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig rushed to the briefing room and announced, ''As for now, I'm in control here.'' Mike McCurry spent hours at the podium fending off queries about President Bill Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, and defending his initial statement that Clinton did not have an ''improper relationship'' with her.
As spokesman in the latter years of Ronald Reagan's presidency and all of the first George Bush's four-year term, Fitzwater had many announcements at all hours of the day and night, such as, ''The liberation of Kuwait has begun'' in 1991.
He chuckled the other day at the memory of rounding up reporters at 5 am to announce the United States had attacked an oil rig in the Gulf, but that he had no more details.
''Is that all we get, you bastard?'' shouted one reporter.