Covering the President: My Adventure at Journalism Space Camp
“Call me right now. Right now. Right now,” pops up on my phone’s screen. The tone is alarmist, so I call my friend to find out what’s going on. She forwards me a White House press credential application and says that I should apply, word is out that the President will be visiting Utah on Friday and he would be at Hill Air Force Base to discuss green energy development and veterans. This is bigger than what I am used to reporting. This isn’t the state legislature or election coverage. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play with the big kids and I want in.
I apply, and the next day I am in. For the next two days, I was signed up for what felt closer to space camp than a press event.
I arrive at the base early and kill time taking photos of aerospace skeletons while others reporters record their b-roll for splicing into tonight’s segment. A storm is quickly moving in.
The White House prep team parks at the museum and starts issuing credentials. The back of my neck burns with anxiety and fear while in line.
“We don’t have you.”
What if they lost my information?
“What about Grant Cragun?”
“Are you Alex or Grant?”
“Who are you covering this for?”
“Utah Political Capitol, we’re a news website.”
“No, a website.”
My elation is the shape of a blue polygon with my name scratched in gel pen.
We then cram into a blue school bus, provide our identification again to Hill Air officials and venture to the tarmac. For a base that was at the forefront of the US’ wars in the Middle East, it hums and whirs with cool ease. The bus angles and turns through a long maze of hangars, homes and offices until we reach another checkpoint. We are ushered out, ID’d again by the Secret Service, swept by a metal detector and have our bags inspected then sniffed by bomb dogs. I internally freak out because my bag has a lighter and the thought of not being here, having to wait in the parking lot for hours, is too much for my frail constitution. We are escorted to press pen on the runway and everyone quickly claims their spots. We have three hours until the President’s plane will arrive. The storm moves along the mountain and valley, the sun crouched low in the sky while the cold takes hold.
For three hours, we huddle close and chat, setting up shots and jotting down bylines. A low rumble comes from the East and a slivered orange sheen circles the valley, touching down a few hundred yards away.
Air Force One is massive bird with a soft glow from the interior lamps. The hatch opens and as I grab my dictaphone to record dozens of shutters chattering at the Commander in Chief, the President sprints down the stairs. The President is far, far away. Pervert zoom lenses are required just to get a profile the man. As he walks along the tarmac to the glad-handed dignitaries, he’s barricaded in a human protection sphere. The steps go as follows:
1.Shakes hands and smile with the President.
2.Exchange two sentences and laugh with the President.
3.Smile and take a photo with the President.
You get 20 seconds to bask in his aura.
I’m fumbling with my dead hands for the camera, to only catch fuzzy streaks of the Executive Branch. Some goddamn Strickland look-alike keeps cockblocking my camera when I hit a good focus. I’m devastated.
The President shakes the hands of soldiers and he leaves for Salt Lake City. The local press is let loose to ask them how it felt to touch the President. I have nothing to show for my day. Defeated, I grab food with friends and pretend to sleep.
I wake up at 6 a.m., grab myself a breakfast burrito and head back to the base for the President’s speech. We’re packaged, ID’d and shipped to a gaggle of solar panels, where we are again ID’d, then searched.
From here, reporters, photographers and videographers become wolves. There are established locations for each major news network and then there is everyone else.
People push and crowd, tenuous alliances are made with adjacent people as you plot how to gnaw out a better view of the podium. Peeing is not an option, you must hold your ground for the next two hours.
However, I score myself a sweet spot because a CBS cameraman needs to take a shit and I promise to watch his things.
A secret service staff is testing the microphone for the President.
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Good? 1, 2? How about you? You good? Let’s see what’s in the news today,” he says as he flips through his phone. “The President speaks on Iran Nuclear Deal. That’s good. Hmmm. Fox 13. ‘President Obama arriving in Utah tonight for Hill Air Force Base Visit.’ Okay, let’s read that,” he says, smiling to the Press.
“’While the agents and the hotel did not confirm the president would stay at the site just off of I-15, the Secret Service asked Fox 13 News not to show their preparations. Fox 13 complied with the request.’ Did you, now?” laughed the agent.
The motorcade approaches and the Presidential Press Corps sprint to the front of the podium. The President walks out and chattering of cameras commences. Obama is the conductor of a syncopated orchestra of coverage—crescendoing with the wave of a hand and peaking at the point of his finger. He outlines the plan and states the facts, but no one is listening. They’re getting that shot, that tweet, a sound bite, scribbling notes—I take a couple hundred photos just to make up for yesterday. Meanwhile, the crowd ape all over themselves, mashing their fingers into their techno-mirrors, ensuring their face and the President’s face are within frame. Thumbs and peace signs abound as policy spews forth. The President smiles and chuckles in a cool manner. The intimacy of the Press Pen condenses further as reporters shove lesser reporters to the ground.
Even though we’re a quarter football field away from the President, with more guards than press, with dump trucks and Uhauls lining the stage, it’s like Paul McCartney playing the uke at Urban for your five best friends. Some people were kinda drunk and without the fear of being man-tackled, double-full-nelsoned, finally tripping and falling into Guantanamo Bay, a few lacy panties would have been thrown at the man.
The speech ends, the President approaches the crowd of dignitaries and soldiers, shakes hands and vaults for DC.
It’s over, my brain is numb from fatigue and the cold, boarding the bus, I reflect and text my notes to myself furiously.