White House Press Room

The Obama White House Perpetual Campaign

By Denis G. Campbell

The relationship between the United States and Wales goes back to its very foundation. Of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, 15-18 of them (depending on which account you read) were of Welsh descent. Another five Welshmen signed the US Constitution 11 years later in 1787. Article Two of that document created the executive branch in which the power of the federal government is vested, this consists of The President of the United States, The Vice President and executive Cabinet Officers.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is often called the People’s House. One of the most recognised executive branch residences in the world, The White House is home to President of the United States Barack Obama (POTUS), his wife First Lady Michelle Obama (FLOTUS), daughters Sasha and Malia and the world’s most recognisable Portuguese Water Hound ‘Bo.’ Along with 1st mother-in-law Marian Robinson, they reside on the 3rd floor in as ‘normal’ a home environment as is possible.

From iconic columns and the fountain at the North Entrance to the balconies and South lawn vistas, this house has been captured in hundreds of thousands of photographs. The White House is both home and museum. People queue daily to tour its 2nd floor public rooms. Whether examining Gilbert Stuart’s oil painting portrait of George Washington (rescued by Dolly Madison when the building was torched in 1814) or the perfectly manicured Rose Garden, symbols abound everywhere of each occupant’s time in this storied house.

President Kennedy swam daily in an indoor pool to ease his back pain in what are now network television offices below the Brady Briefing Room; so-named after President Reagan’s Press Secretary was shot and paralysed in a 1981 assassination attempt on the President. Outside the Oval Office one sees the climbing frame erected for the current youngest residents of this White House.

From sombre Presidential Press conferences announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden to more festive Medal of Freedom presentation, to concerts with notable artists, to solemn remembering as caskets lie in state honouring fallen Presidents, the East Room is the place of ceremonies large and small. One can imagine what it would be like to attend a gala dinner in The State Dining Room, have tea with FLOTUS in the Red Room, mingle out on the Truman balcony with the First Family during 4th of July fireworks, because photos of these events have been seen around the world.

While a residence and museum, most importantly, it is the seat of executive power in the USA:  1,400 people work daily inside the Executive branch. The hub of their activity being The West Wing, Oval Office and OEOB (Old Executive Office Building).

Covering the White House

Cambria Magazine sent me to cover as they geared up for a gruelling re-election season. As a member of the White House Press Corps, I covered the non-stop action. It included a daily press briefing, speech by Vice President Joe Biden (VPOTUS) to University students in the OEOB, FLOTUS’ Mother’s Day event with military families, Marine One helicopter departure and arrival and a Rose Garden ceremony honouring police forces.

Oh and whilst there? The president came out in support of same-sex marriage during a pre-recorded interview with ABC, hung out with George Clooney and his Hollywood friends (earning $4 million dollars towards his re-election bid) and I got to meet and work with reporters and journalists I’d spent years following.

In a 34-hour period POTUS flew from Washington to Seattle to Los Angeles to Reno and back to the South Lawn. It helps that he’s not slowed by TSA security or traffic. Marine One takes him to his airplane and police shut down roadways where he visits so his motorcade speeds by traffic. His schedule was packed with speeches, fundraising, campaign events and a visit to a neighbourhood touting his mortgage refinance programme.

The Daily Schedule

Every evening around 10 pm, members of the press corps receive an e-mail entitled DAILY GUIDANCE AND PRESS SCHEDULE. It provides a summary paragraph and up-to-the-minute schedule of activities and press calls for the next day. It tells us who the In-Town and Out-of-Town travel press pool members are and they give the rest of us a window inside the world of POTUS moment-by-moment. Throughout the day we’re treated to a stream of e-mails from the pool where every detail is shared (‘POTUS paid $34.62 plus a $10 tip for hamburgers for staff, those serving him were…’) and there’s the phone number of the pool reporter if there are questions.

With POTUS travelling a quiet day seemed on the cards, it was anything but. I arrived at the White House gates at 9:15 am. When one passes through security you can go to just two places, the outdoor stand of television podiums showing the exterior of the building or the Brady Briefing Room. Anywhere else,  and you find yourself surrounded by secret service agents.

The briefing room is very small. There are 42-chairs spread out in 6 rows, a tiny podium and in the back are 7 control consoles from which one could conceivably direct 6th Fleet Naval operations. There are more cameras per sq inch than should be allowed in one place and during the briefing the temperature in the room rises some 10 degrees as the aisles are packed with those (like me) without an assigned seat.

The Daily Schedule

Every evening around 10 pm, members of the press corps receive an e-mail entitled DAILY GUIDANCE AND PRESS SCHEDULE. It provides a summary paragraph and up-to-the-minute schedule of activities and press calls for the next day. It tells us who the In-Town and Out-of-Town travel press pool members are and they give the rest of us a window inside the world of POTUS moment-by-moment. Throughout the day we’re treated to a stream of e-mails from the pool where every detail is shared (POTUS paid $34.62 plus a $10 tip for hamburgers for staff, those serving him were…) and there’s the phone number of the pool reporter if there are questions.

While it seemed a quiet day with POTUS travelling, it was anything but. I arrived at the White House gates at 9:15 am. When one passes through security you can go to just two places, the outdoor stand of television podiums showing the exterior of the building or the Brady Briefing Room. Anywhere else, you find yourself surrounded by secret service agents.

The briefing room is very small. There are 42-chairs spread out in 6 rows, a tiny podium and in the back are 7 control consoles from which one could conceivably direct 6th Fleet Naval operations. There are more cameras per sq inch than should be allowed in one place and during the briefing the temperature in the room rises some 10 degrees as the aisles are packed with those (like me) without an assigned seat.

Team FLOTUS is in the House

Our first item of business was the departure. Press gathered outside the doors to the Palm Room and at the appointed moment we were herded through, across the Rose Garden and into place behind the ever-present rope line. Five minutes later, POTUS and key staff bounded up the chopper’s stairs, engines fired up and they were off to Joint Base Andrews, where, 12-minutes later, POTUS alighted and bounded up the stairs of the modified 747-400 we know as Air Force One and 8-minutes later they were rolling.

Like sheep we were sent back into the briefing room where we ‘hurry up and wait.’ During the transcontinental flight, Press Secretary Jay Carney ‘gaggled’ with the press on board. He stands in the middle of the rear press section and ‘informally’ answers reporter’s questions. The audio of the proceedings is piped back to the briefing room from somewhere over Pennsylvania. We later get a full transcript in our e-mail box. The most newsworthy, but little reported, item was when Carney chastised members of the press for ‘not doing their job’ and following talking points vs. reporting fact. This would lead to a humorous Jon Stewart The Daily Show item and be featured on the MSNBC Rachel Maddow Show, but nowhere else.

No matter, we had to gather in the OEOB for VPOTUS Biden’s talk to University students. It was a short address with roughly 100-students gathered. Joe joked but was not his usual fiery self. About 60-photographers, reporters and sound people were roped off in the back for a report no one would ever see. And this is the life of the White House press corps. Film and cover everything, the majority of which ends up on the cutting room floor. A CNN producer carried his camera rather than pre-set it. He said, “If they evacuate us, I want it with me, not sitting in a room somewhere.”

What struck me was every event on the schedule, whilst having the outwardly noble appearance of speaking on a big domestic issue, was also somewhat crassly aimed at a key voting demographic for the fall. For example, POTUS won the youth vote handily in 2008, they are ambivalent in 2012 so, hey presto, here is an event talking about tuition and education celebrating student leaders. This is the value of the White House ‘bully pulpit.’ If you talk about it and create great visuals, you could win the media day as ‘specialty press’ focus on and cover the event for that demographic.

We gathered again by the Palm Room ready for shepherding to FLOTUS’ military family luncheon. I stood behind the rope line with a photographer from Stars and Stripes Magazine for whom this was an important story. And therein lies the political genius of the White House. Having FLOTUS and Dr. Jill Biden (VPOTUS’ wife and military family supporter-her son Beau served in Iraq) with mothers in uniform, talking about the difficulties of multiple tours of duty, while their kids make Mother’s Day gifts with the help of White House chefs in the State Dining Room. It is patriotic gold two weeks before the nation honours all fallen service members on Memorial Day.

At the End of the Week

POTUS returned to the same South Lawn landing pad 34-hours after leaving having spent almost half the trip in the air. A tired and grumpy press group was there on a Friday evening to film his arrival. A fire engine and ambulance stood by on the side in case the unthinkable occurred. Marine One’s engines stopped and POTUS exited the chopper, said “have a nice weekend” and entered via the South Portico doors. A ‘full lid’ was called over the loudspeaker (meaning no more news) and we trudged home. Morning call was 9:00 am for the Rose Garden police ceremony setup, after which POTUS (trailed by the in-town pool hanging out in the snack bar) would play his 95th round of golf since taking office…

Just another typical day in a White House that never stops.

gan Denis Campbell of UK Progressive

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