Wednesday, September 22, 2004

I scared the President with a cell phone 

I was on the scene today as the President visited a flood-ravaged suburban Pittsburgh borough. We almost didn't get to cover it at all, but through persistence we ended up in better shape than all of our competitors. And I think I frightened W. To the lengthy recap we go....!

He was scheduled to fly in to Pittsburgh and then helicopter over the flood damage, eventually landing at his Westmoreland County campaign rally. But somewhere in the last 24 hours he finalized a plan to stop in one of the towns, Millvale, to get a briefing on the damage and give brief remarks to cleanup crews and victims.

For reasons unknown, no radio reporter was invited to join the press pool that would be traveling on the helicopters! So my original assignment was to just go to the airport -- useless for radio -- while another person handled the Latrobe campaign rally. Around midday we started hearing rumors about where he'd be stopping off, and we clearly needed to be on the ground there. So I pushed my boss to hound the White House, and eventually they gave the OK to add us to the pool at the last minute. I dashed out to Millvale and reached the field coordinator on his cell. He was incredibly helpful, and I was allowed into the area where this was all taking place. I was actually the only reporter there since the only others who were allowed in were coming in the pool, which travels with the Prez.

Around 3:30 we saw Air Force One, which is rather unmistakable, fly overhead. A half hour after that, the choppers rolled in. Marine One is huge and, like Air Force One, unmistakable.

When the motorcade arrived I joined the pool. I watched W get a briefing and then he gave his little talk ("We know what you're going through," "This brings out the best in us as Americans," "I see neighbors loving each other," and other such inane drivel). But this was when it got weird!

I wanted to carry the speech live, so I left my recording equipment to do its thing and walked to the other side of the crowd to hold my phone up to a speaker. All the other press stayed together on the other side of the crowd. Thought that was odd, but the Secret Service guy who was standing next to me said it was fine. When Bush was done talking, he started walking directly toward me. He wasn't flanked by Secret Service or anything. He came toward me like he was going to shake my hand, but I was doing my on-air recap and sort of backed away to indicate I wasn't a regular person. Then, when he started talking to the crowd, I said, "Let's see if we can listen in as he greets those who are gathered here." I took the phone, like I would ordinarily do with a microphone, and held it out to catch the conversation. At this point Dubya looked straight at me with an expression of, "Why are you putting this phone in my vicinity?" As I was still on the air, and as I had nothing with me to indicate I was a reporter, I simply put my hand on his left arm and made a "sorry, my bad, I'm going away now" face and backed up! I have no idea what he thought. Had I had my microphone, he'd have known I was a reporter and might've said, "Let me talk with these nice folks for a minute" or else just let me record the chatting. But given that he had no idea what I was doing, it was just very strange!

Anyway, typically with major government officials we're far more...."herded" than that and we know where we can and can't be, when we can and can't ask questions, etc. It was just plain weird to have no idea whether what I was doing was a good idea or not, and to have no one there (like a large Secret Service agent) to make that decision for me. It was most interesting. But a success, as we ended up being the only media outlet to carry the speech live.

Also, once I was added to the official pool, I briefly considered leaving my car in Millvale and boarding the prses helicopter to fly to Latrobe. Being in a Presidential motorcade in the sky would have been a true once in a lifetime experience. But given the fact that I couldn't justify this action from a work standpoint (my co-worker was already at the rally location), I didn't. Plus, being a wuss by nature, helicopters have never struck me as a pleasant form of transportation.

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