KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Suffocating heat, 60 pounds of gear and an all-out 300-yard sprint in a suit. It’s just another day at the office for television producers, camera crews and journalists traveling inside the security bubble with the American president on his week-long trip to four Asian nations.
ABC News accompanied President Obama inside the presidential “press pool” from Tokyo to Seoul and all stops along the way — a 14-hour day that included a ride on Air Force One and a CH-46 Sea Knight chopper; 11 photo ops; one press conference; nine sprints; and a few competitive scuffles with members of the host countries’ press corps.
Here’s an insider’s glimpse of what globetrotting with Obama is really like (spoiler alert: it’s not nearly as glamorous as you might think):
The day began with a farewell reception for Japan’s Emperor Akihito at the Hotel Okura in Tokyo. After Obama said goodbye — and complimented the emperor’s state dinner dessert — the traveling press joined a mammoth motorcade headed for the airport. By our count, more than two dozen cars snaked through the deserted streets — ours positioned at least 15 back — making it difficult to get a shot of “The Beast” (the nickname of the president’s hulking limousine) cruising along.
Once we reached the tarmac at Haneda Airport, it was a mad dash from the back of the line to catch up with Obama. Our camera crew jumped out of our still-moving van try to get a picture of that presidential wave from the door of the plane. On this run, we only managed to catch Obama while he was halfway up the steps.
The whir of the engines is a sign departure is minutes away. The travel pool boards through fold-out steps leading to a small cabin in the back of custom Boeing 747. We’re well out of view of the president and his staff, making it a welcome respite for the camera crew (no filming is allowed on board anyway). But on this two-hour flight to Osan Air Base in South Korea, it was all work and no rest for reporters and producers, who got their first chance of the day to pepper White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes with questions.
After a 30-minute in-flight briefing — and at least as long spent transcribing — there’s just enough time for lunch and a power-nap. On today’s Air Force One menu: A Cape Cod Chicken Salad, Apple Tart and drink of choice.
As Air Force One makes its final approach into South Korea, it’s hard not to feel a sense of immense privilege to be one of just a dozen White House press corps members on board. Air Force One is an unmistakable icon of American power and diplomacy. You always wonder what people on the ground are thinking when they look up and see the president coming in overhead.
The flight path took President Obama across the Sea of Japan, soaring at 575 miles per hour at altitude, with an outside temperature of minus 51 degrees, according to on-board computer monitors in the press cabin. When we touched down, it was a hot and hazy start to what would be an afternoon scramble in Seoul. First priority: Getting the shot of Obama’s arrival from under Air Force One’s wing.
As soon as Obama shakes the last hand of dignitaries greeting him, it’s off to the races again: A sprint to the CH-46 Marine support helicopters waiting nearby, ready to ferry the press and staff to Yongsan Garrison, the headquarters of U.S. military force in Korea.
Inside the chopper, it’s loud, stiflingly hot and smells like jet fuel for the 20-minute ride to the landing zone. Spotty cell service makes it difficult to send out reports by BlackBerry and iPhone about the president’s status, and news from the press briefing that took place aboard the plane.
We land before Obama with just enough time for another sprint to the high ground for a chance to film the Marine One landing in an adjacent field. Back in the motorcade, we’re first off to a naturalization ceremony for two dozen candidates for U.S. citizenship.
From there it’s a game of leap frog: Covering Obama in action before jumping ahead of him to position the pool camera for the next event. After the naturalization ceremony, it’s a wreath-laying at the National War Memorial; then, a trip to Gyeongbok Palace in downtown Seoul; finally, an official visit to South Korea’s Blue House and President Park.
By the time we reached the Blue House, the press pool was looking a little haggard (at least, this producer was) — jet-lagged, sweaty, and not exactly comfortable. South Korean press staff mandated a strict dress code for reporters and crew members inside the government building. Suits required for men; dark colors preferred. ABC cameraman Gamay Palacios had to get creative, turning his light gray jacket inside out to a dark blue in order to comply.
Exactly 12 hours after our day began — President Obama and President Park retired behind closed doors for a working dinner, not expected to be seen in public by our cameras for the remainder of the day. For the weary scrum of American reporters, it was a chance to catch a much needed breather, waiting out the final two hours of duty in a holding room, before returning in the motorcade with Obama to his hotel.
The secret to surviving a grueling day covering the presidency is a passion for being on the front lines of history, and a deep awareness of the responsibility of being the only network television producer so close to the most powerful man in the world. But, let’s face it, today it also helped to have a good sense of humor and some well-soled shoes.