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Dig they must for a better White House

There's nothing like a lot of digging -- or plans to do a lot of digging -- around the White House to raise the suspicions of Washingtonians. Right now there is some sort of elaborate construction project on the North Lawn of the White House. "Th...

There's nothing like a lot of digging -- or plans to do a lot of digging -- around the White House to raise the suspicions of Washingtonians.

Right now there is some sort of elaborate construction project on the North Lawn of the White House. "The work is so intensive that it has raised questions, particularly among skeptical White House reporters, about the true purpose of the project," observes The Associated Press.

The White House insists it's simply a routine upgrade of utilities. Maybe yes, maybe no.

Americans, and particularly Washington reporters, are very proprietary toward the White House, and in the 19th century twice helped kill plans to move it, once during the Civil War out 16th Street to Meridian Hill -- the scheme seemed to have actually gotten far enough along that plans were drawn up -- and again in the Chester Arthur administration to build a new one adjacent to the old one.

The building has remained remarkably unchanged over the years with the exception of the West Wing that grew in stages during the administrations of Taft and both Roosevelts and the East Wing built during World War II.

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Construction on the East Wing served to conceal work on a bomb shelter and a tunnel to the Treasury Department next door where FDR and his wheelchair could easily be taken to a larger complex of bomb shelters. The tunnel is still there, allegedly unused but who knows what went on during the bank and Wall Street bailout negotiations.

During the Reagan and George W. Bush years, the presidential bunker, technically the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, was enlarged, then enlarged again. A simple utility upgrade, right?

The White House for most of its life basked in loving neglect until it came close to falling apart during the Truman administration. The last straw, according to legend, was when the leg of the Trumans' piano went through the floor.

The Trumans moved across the street while the building was completely gutted -- really gutted. There is a famous photo of a bulldozer and a dump truck driving around inside a floorless shell. Truman added a much derided balcony on the south portico but when the Republicans took over they decided they kind of like the balcony and kept it.

(This happens a lot. The Republicans derided Bill Clinton for closing Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. But George Bush left the avenue closed and so far, so has Obama.)

When Richard Nixon took office the press room was just inside the main door to the West Wing. It was great for the reporters but not so great for Nixon because the press corp could see and ambush almost everybody who came and went to the Oval Office.

So, as so often happens, the construction crews were summoned and the White House indoor swimming pool was converted into a press room a safe distance from the Oval Office. VIP visitors are sometimes allowed to descend to the old pool through a trap door behind the press briefing lectern.

Hillary Clinton, who came to town with no love for the press, proposed restoring the swimming pool to its original purpose and moving the press somewhere else, maybe the bowels of a nearby federal building. But cooler heads realized that the last thing the Clintons needed was another dustup with the press.

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In the Reagan-Bush years, plans were drawn up for an elaborate underground complex under the North Lawn, where, as it happens, they are now digging, at the far end of which would be a new press room, clean, with lots of bells and whistles. The press corps didn't fall for it.

Some years back, Lafayette Park, seven acres across the now-closed street from the White House, was closed for over a year, presumably for renovations. But was that all? And why wasn't it surrounded by a high plywood fence so no one could see in and why did it take so long?

Just a simple upgrade of the sidewalks, repair of the fountains and some new plantings, right?

McFeatters writes for Scripps Howard News Service.

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