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Bush to the Press: Welcome Back – Sort Of.

(AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
White House Correspondent Mark Knoller has a behind-the-scenes report from the new White House Briefing Room…

In a ceremony more closely associated with supermarket openings, President Bush this morning cut a red, white and blue ribbon to inaugurate the newly renovated White House Briefing Room.

The event also marked the return to the West Wing of the White House press corps – ending an 11-month exile in a conference center across the street and down the block.

"Welcome back," said the President – adding a little needle to his greeting, "We missed you -- sort of."

He spoke from a brand new, high-tech podium.

Gone is the simple blue-curtain backdrop.

It now looks like something from the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise.

It's got stage lighting, rotating panels and two 45-inch video screens on which the White House can display charts, graphs, logos or commutation announcements.

The room has new furniture, carpeting and marble slabs on the wall. It smells like a new car – though press rooms have a way of quickly taking on the aroma of its occupants.

Members of the press now sit in new theater-like seats that we're told are an inch wider than they used to be - perhaps in the belief that reporters are too.

The room is no bigger than it used to be, but the ceilings are higher and vaulted.

The briefing room still stands over what used to be the West Wing swimming pool – constructed in 1933 to provide an opportunity for the polio-stricken Pres. Franklin Roosevelt to take a daily swim.

A stairway now leads underneath the briefing room – where you can still see the tiles on the wall of what used to be the pool. But instead of water, the room is filled with racks of electronic equipment – like something out of the warrantless wiretapping facility at the National Security Agency.

Pres. Bush noticed the new high-powered air conditioning.

"I can already tell this place has improved," he said. "The last time I was in here to hold a press conference I broke out into a sweat -- not because of your questions, but because of the climate."

But he was adamant about not taking a round of questions today.

"Well, maybe some other time," he told reporters gathered for the ribbon-cutting.

And yet, for all the guff he takes from the media, he spoke respectfully about the relationship.

"Sometimes you don't like the decisions I make, and sometimes I don't like the way you write about the decisions. But nevertheless, it's a really important part of our process."

And a costly one. Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin estimates the total cost of the renovation at $8-million dollars. He says news organizations paid about 25% of that. And Pres. Bush thinks it's worth it.

"It's going to make your life better and, frankly, it's going to make the lives of future Presidents better, as well. And so it's a good contribution that you all have left behind. And we're glad to have been a part of it."

So for the time being, the White House press corps – reporters, photographers, camera crews – are living large in new and improved facilities.

It still is neat and clean – but privately - we're betting how long it stays that way. The press has a well-earned reputation of converting any facility we occupy into something akin to a pig sty.

That's why the place needed renovating and retrofitting in the first place.

The White House Correspondents Association sent out a long list of rules and regulations for the new press room.

"Food and drinks will not be allowed into the Brady Press Briefing Room," the e-mail warned sternly.

"Dispose of all trash in appropriate receptacles. Please maintain all areas and clean up after yourself."

Reminds me of the rules I was forced to live by as 5th grader on Assembly Days at P.S. 152 in Brooklyn.

Of course, many of us in the press still behave like 5th graders.