What Do a Swimming Pool and a Man Named Fatty Price Have to Do with the White House and the Press?

What do a swimming pool and a man named Fatty Price have to do with the White House and the press?

Well --- The determination of one eventually led to the other becoming the site of the White House Press Room.

Curious? Read on!

It’s almost impossible to imagine today, but until the late 19th century, the press barely covered the presidency at all. Congress was considered much more important and was where the action was. Presidents might grant individual interviews from time to time or their secretaries might meet with journalists now and then. But there were no journalist assigned to just cover the White House or the president.

Enter Fatty Price

During President Grover Cleveland's second term (1892-1897) a clever reporter from the Washington Evening Star, named Fatty Price, began hanging around the White House entrance fishing for newsworthy stories. He could frequently be spotted standing outside the White House gates questioning visitors about their meeting inside as they exited and went on their way.

This was just an interesting occurrence at first. But attention to the White House soon caught on! Suddenly more and more reporters became interested in covering the president and the goings on at the White House.

William McKinley, the president who followed Grover Cleveland’s second term (1893-1897) finally created a special section of the White House where the growing number of reporters could gather and work. This space was a lovely table (Yes, a table!) right out in the corridor on the second floor of the White House. And his secretary would routinely come out into the corridor and tell the reporters what was going on. Welcome to White House news briefings! 

President McKinley's press table.

President McKinley's press table.

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909; the president after McKinley) finally found a real ROOM in the White House for reporters.  He also began the policy of issuing press credentials.

Next came press conferences --- President Howard Taft (1909-1913, the president after Theodore Roosevelt) began doing weekly conferences with the press. And from then on right through to President Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) all presidents met with the press on a weekly basis and answered their questions --- well, their written questions, at least.  These press conferences were not broadcast on the radio, and television and computers had not been invented yet. So these conferences were only between the president and reporters.

From Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) through Harry Truman (1945-1953) many of the conferences between the president and the press were informal and were frequently considered “off the record.”  They were so informal that it was considered permissible for a president to go back and modify or even change what he had said, after he said it! Ooops! That is, if a reporter agreed! During this period, press conferences were frequent. But when the rules changed to make comments on the record during President Eisenhower’s administration (1953-1961), the number of press conferences held dropped significantly!

Informal or formal, there was no fixed location for these briefings or presidential press conferences. They could occur in the Oval Office, in the Indian Treaty Room, perhaps in the East Room or even in the State Department auditorium.

Enter the White House swimming pool

In 1970, the number of reporters assigned to the White House had grown so much that it had totally outgrown the press room there. To solve this problem, President Richard Nixon (1969-1974) had the White House’s indoor swimming pool, which had been installed by the March of Dimes for Franklin D. Roosevelt, (1933-1945) covered and turned into press offices and a lounge for reporters. The new space include a one-story Briefing Room installed over the swimming pool and two floors of work and broadcasting areas to the east of the pool, toward the White House proper. In addition, this space could also double as a briefing room and be used for press conferences. With new comfortable space in which to work and a room that could be formally used for press conferences, the press had now become more a part of and important to the presidency.

President Johnson swimming in the White House pool.

President Johnson swimming in the White House pool.

In 2000, the new room was named the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in honor of James Brady, the press secretary who was shot and permanently disabled during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Side Bar --- LBJ and the Pre-Pressroom Swimming Pool

President Johnson (1963-1969) notoriously had problems setting boundaries with his aides, and his use of the White House pool was not an exception. Staff would find any believable excuse to scatter whenever President Johnson expressed a desire to take a swim!!! This was because not only would he swim in and lounge around the pool completely naked, he would insist that others do the same. In a scene that is most unsettling to imagine, he once persuaded the preacher Billy Graham to join him in one of his skinny-dipping sessions. (They prayed together in the water.)