Covering the White House is an amazing honor and privilege and, sometimes -- as a recent trip to Panama for the Summit of the Americas proved -- a mad, harried scramble.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s actually like to be part of the traveling press corps on a major international trip with President Obama:
Wake Up and Dust Someone
It’s 9:30 a.m. and the press pool, the small team of reporters and photographers who follow the president’s every move, is covered in thick dust.
Marine One, the president’s helicopter, had just made an unexpected landing on an athletic field near the Panama Canal.
Reporters, me included, were so busy looking up at the skies as Marine One flew overhead, that none of us noticed the dustbowl beneath out feet.
Before we had a chance to think twice, we were sandblasted, caught in a massive dust storm. My shoes had turned to sandboxes and I could feel the grit in my teeth. But there was no time to waste (or bemoan the fact that we were still at least 14 hours away from our next shower).
Seconds later we were in the motorcade, picking grass out of our hair as we race toward the Panama Canal for the president’s surprise visit to the engineering marvel, one of the rare moments when the president gets to play tourist.
And this was just the start of the day. From the Canal we zoomed to a nearby hotel, bouncing over bumpy roads, so the president could attend a full day of meetings.
“We’re running!” is a phrase heard often from our wranglers, the tireless White House press aides who corral and advocate for the press pool. They guided us as we raced up and down stairs, our camerawoman hauling 45 pounds of gear, and zipped into elevators on our way to capture a few minutes, or sometimes just seconds, of the president’s meetings.
The pool is usually brought in at the top or bottom of these gatherings to capture brief remarks from the president and foreign leaders or sometimes just a handshake between them. Being in the right place and the right time is critical.
A Door Slams Shut
While being with the White House definitely has its perks, those advantages are often challenged on foreign soil. The wranglers have to vie with the foreign press and local representatives to make sure we get access to the president’s events.
Sounds easy enough, but it can lead to some dramatic skirmishes.
In Panama, we found ourselves elbowing our way through aggressive media scrums to get to the front of the pack and capture those images that would later grace broadcasts and front pages around the world.
At one point, we got into a heated clash with Panamanian authorities. We had just sprinted from the press vans, which are located toward the back of the president’s lengthy motorcade, up to the side door of a hotel where the president was set to deliver remarks on civil society, only to find the door slammed in our face, literally.
Our wranglers and the advance press aides shouted to colleagues inside, but to no avail. The local authorities were not convinced.
Meanwhile, the president was taking the stage inside.
After a few quick phone calls, we were ultimately let in, though we still got some dirty glances from the local officials as we ran past to capture the last few minutes of Obama’s speech.
Expect the Unexpected
The day is choreographed to a T. But sometimes the president has other plans in mind.
It was 10:30 p.m. and the president was attending a formal dinner for summit leaders and, although we were an hour and half behind schedule, he was still expected to stay for hours.
The pool was just settling in for what was expected to be a long hold. While a lot of the day is a mad dash, there is also a ton of waiting around.
Hungry reporters were just lining up to hit the buffet – media outlets pay for all of the press amenities provided on these trips – when we were told to race back to the vans.
The president had decided not to stay, after all.
Dishes clashed and clanged as we dropped everything, grabbed our gear and ran.
Just as we reach the vans, “kaboom,” a loud blast is heard. It’s impossible not to think about security concerns when traveling with the president. We instinctively look toward the Secret Service agent assigned to travel with us and he isn’t flinching. The boom was just fireworks erupting overhead.
Moments later we are rolling once again, but this time back to our hotel and, finally, to those much-needed showers.