Friday, March 30, 2012

Barbarians at the Gate

Backpedaling in the White House Garden
Cindy Farmer and I didn't go to the White House just to get frisked by Secret Service agents. (Well, I didn't.) We went to tackle the tough issues. So we headed to the Rose Garden. There we found a few other news crews: selected anchor women from around the country invited to lob softballs at Michelle Obama. Each had a photog with them and as we sized each other up, I couldn't help but notice mine was the smallest camera present. A portly sports shooter type seemed to notice too and I didn't like his look. Inhaling sharply, I puffed up my chest and unsnapped the black leather microphone holster hanging. I was all about to go acoustic on a father of four from Phoenix when our twenty-something tour guide spoke up. "You guys came on a good day," she said "the boss is out of town." If by 'out of town' she mean Korea, then our guide was precise. Later that day, President Obama would garner headlines when he was heard whispering sweet nothings to Russian leaders. Yes, as the former community organizer navigated the shoals of nuclear brinkmanship, I was about to 'bow up' in his backyard. That's when the silhouette of snipers on the White House roof caught my eye and I remembered where I was. All around me, handlers dashed this way and that, Park Service employees watered  plants and unsmiling men in nondescript suits glared at anything that moved. Every few minutes, some guy in black fatigues cradling an assault rifle would pop out of a bush before disappearing again. It was enough to make any cameraman jumpy, let alone one with two pots of hotel coffee coursing through his veins.

So I focused. It helped that the command appearance was so well organized. Mrs. Obama would show her face later, when a group of school kids from around the country would need the First Lady's help in the White House garden. For now, our tour guide introduced us to the official beekeeper of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as well as the White House Chef. Apparently the Presidential plumber was indisposed, (no doubt busy removing old fishnet stocking from a drain pipe once favored by J. Edgar Hoover). No matter. Both the beekeeper and the bald guy were camera ready and gregarious to boot. Cindy too hit all her marks, as only someone who's spent a lifetime in front of a TV camera can.  Within minutes, we had all the interviews we needed and as I walked my tripod around in search of close-ups, I thought I caught sight of Cindy doing cartwheels on the White House lawn. It was a spectacular Spring day.

DC SwarmBy two o clock it was still spectacular, though a blight had arrived in the form of the Fourth Estate. What had been a casual walking tour devolved into a stagnant photo op and as handlers shooed cute children into place, a phalanx of photographers formed on the prearranged spot. Suddenly all creativity vanished as dozens of different lenses captured the same image over and over again. Once that was done, small talk broke out as we waited for the First Lady to appear. When Michelle Obama finally did emerge in the distance, she ambled toward us like a monied housewife coming outside to entertain the neighbor kids. The sound of camera shutters erupted as Mrs. Obama drew near and I found myself fighting the urge to curtsy. As media swarms go, it was substantial, though the lifers that make up the Washington press community got nothin' on the Hollywood paparazzi.  Why, no one even screamed or genuflected like they do when Ryan Seacrest pops out of his box. Perhaps it's the presence of all those snipers. Certainly kept me in line.

Speaking of lines, Michelle Obama worked the crowd of school children like a pro.  When I turned to tell Cindy Farmer this though, my lovely anchor was nowhere to be seen. Then I caught a glimpse of her being escorted into the White House and I knew that the mission was at hand. A few minutes later some White House wonk snapped this photo of the one-on-one interview we'd been promised. I managed to worm my way near the blessed event and though I watched the whole thing I was out of earshot. Guess I'll hear what they said when I sit down to edit it, though I'm hoping they at least took a little time to chat about something more interesting than gardening and parenting skills, like, say,  Area 51 or Nicholas Cage shouldn't be allowed to shoot any more of those National Treasure movies. Whatever they discussed, I was for once grateful to my bosses for sending me here, I just hope the exit process involves fewer cavity searches than what it took to get in this joint...

Michelle and Cindy

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The West Sling

Cindy and Me Press RoomIf ever you needed proof that a fancycam can open any door, consider this: I wormed my way into the White House yesterday. Technically, we were even invited! Well, Cindy Farmer was. The Piedmont's perennial sweetheart, er, anchor lady was allegedly minding her own business last week when she received a phone call from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. "Michelle Obama would like to meet with you. Can you come to the White House?" Somewhat suspecting she was being punked, Cindy said yes and before long it was determined she would need a photog to document the event. Enter ME. No, really: I walked by the Chief at the right time and he asked me if I wanted to go. 'Sounds labor intensive', I thought, the kind of thing I usually avoid. "Of course!" I said. Hey, some things you don't pass up. 

All of which explains why I showed up at the White House security gate yesterday with camera gear, credentials and one perky morning anchor. The oak tree in a uniform took a look at Cindy's beaming face and waived her through. Then he stared at my press pass for a good sixty seconds before pressing an unseen button, at which point two gun-wielding ninjas popped out from behind a bush and dragged me away to an underground bunker. Okay, it didn't go down exactly like that, but I was poked, prodded, Cindy and I, White House lawnalmost tased and damn near engaged before being finally ushered inside. My gear suffered a similar fate. Guards removed all 74 items I had jammed into my backpack  and when they were done I had about 15 seconds to put it all back in. I finished in time and the guards seemed pleased. Wonder what their over/under was?

First stop: the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. You know, that vaulted space where the Press Secretary of the moment faces cameras and deflects questions. It all looks so grand on C-Span but in reality it's about the size of a stout double-wide trailer (with all the charm). We residents of the Fourth Estate are used to this phenomenon, as all studios look smaller in person. But this deception is so striking it belongs right up there with Area 51, which, I suspect, has alien examination rooms bigger than this rinky-dink theater where the official spokesperson for the current administration quite literally faces the nation. Speaking of which ... it's next to impossible to hang out in a room with that kind of Presidential podium and not eventually take the floor. Why, during MY time at the lectern, I called for an end to the War on Drugs, Press Briefing Roomdeclared Stevie Ray Vaughan's birthday (October 3rd) a national holiday and proudly named The Hillary Step as our 51st State. Of course my exhortations barely raised an eyebrow and as I looked out over the hardened press corps, I realized I wasn't the first rookie they'd watched go rogue...

NEXT TIME: Lifers, Snipers and Bo, OH MY!