"Executive producers. They're all assholes to me." A couple of camera guys are shooting the breeze in the White House press briefing room while we all wait to be herded into the Rose Garden for the Calderon-Obama press conference. Who are we? The White House press corps, their Mexican counterparts and me. In a media way, I am the crasher of Obama State Dinner no. 2., although not nearly as fetching as the insouciant Mrs. Salahi (husband in tow) who breezed past the Secret Service and into the party tent at the State Dinner last November for the Prime Minister of India. The East Wing is still dealing with the fall-out from that misadventure. I hope not to be as much trouble.
I haven't been to the White House since a school trip in eighth grade. And I've been intensely curious about what it's like as a reporter to cover the White House, so when I received a White House press advisory (like thousands of scribblers, I'm on the email list), I applied for a credential, as a blogger for The Huffington Post, to cover the state visit of Felipe Calderon, President of Mexico, and his wife Margarita Zavala. And now here I am, uploading photos in the very room Press Secretary Robert Gibbs launches witty rejoinders and stonewalls most every day. It's gratifying, mostly because first and foremost I am an American citizen who has made it past the door of the People's House. I am not a professional journalist. I have never been paid for my work. In fact, I am among the 12% unemployed of Alameda County, California.
Behind me, the audio tech crews are struggling with the channels for translation feeds. "Two, is that Spanish?" "No, one." "One doesn't work. Must be two." "One." Around me perched on the uncomfortable chairs (how does Helen Thomas sleep here?), wedged in with battery packs and backpacks spilling BlackBerries and spiral notebooks, are a few of the visiting press conversing desultorily in Spanish. As significant spaces often are, the press briefing room is unassuming, lowly even, battered and worn like a grade school classroom. Truants smoke in the narrow truck delivery drive outside the open door. But really this is a very busy place. Beyond the briefing room unspools a thin ribbon of corridor and a rabbit warren of tiny desks and glass-enclosed cells where reporters from Reuters et al. can be seen but not heard in intense engagement with back-lit screens. Like a barometer picking up a storm system, I feel the pressure, deadlines palpable as backwash, when I squeeze, on a random thought about fire code violations, past the feet and the hunched shoulders and into the small, nondescript, high-walled courtyard where more press mill, waiting for entrée to the South Lawn of the White House.
A door opens. An Obama aide blocks it. She begins to speak. Loudly. Slowly. She seems way too young to have mastered the tone of one whose patience is often sorely tried. "Don't go on the press riser unless you have a camera. A camera. If you are print, there is a pen for you right next. The riser is for camera people only. Camera only. Don't go beyond the rope. Do. Not. Go. Beyond the rope." It's the affect of the quotidian presidential aide. As if he or she is a hall monitor and we reporters are unruly schoolchildren.
Shoo-shooed along, we hurry through the Palm Room (a remnant of the old Conservatory?) and down the curved drive on the south front of the White House and into the wet, unmown grass of the South Lawn where the press riser awaits; the white rope we are not to touch jumps up and down on its own accord. Behind us (there are maybe 100 press), beyond another rope that bounds a lesser view, stand a clutch of "real people," as another young Obama aide describes them when we enquire. Before us, up the sloping lawn, are a small pen of special guests (can just make out Al Sharpton and wish for binoculars) and a straggle of schoolchildren along the drive.
Even I know that the presentation of foreign dignitaries is usually a yawner, stretched out long on the struts of awkward choreography and sonorous rhetoric. But we are about to get a double treat. This is a military arrival ceremony, the first of the Obama administration, I gather--complete with Ruffles and Flourishes, a 21-gun salute, a lengthy procession of flags and a presidential review of the troops, which includes an eighteenth-century drum and fife corps. Nobody among the press seems to know exactly why we have kept such a bewigged tradition, or "where they disappear to" afterwards.
But the real treat--the surprise--is that the Welcoming of President Calderon turns out to be a newsworthy event. When President Obama says, presumably to President Calderon, "We can ensure that our common border is secure," the real people behind the press pen applaud. The moment turns out to be significant when President Calderon rings a darker note on the edge of diplo-speak when he calls the experience of migrant workers in Arizona "discrimination." He is more than exercised, if not quite angry. The edge of this relationship between the two countries has been set in a way that no 28-ingredient mole from guest chef Rick Bayless will coat.
Now it's two hours later, and we print people wait in our dark suits like neat lines of crows, on party chairs for the Rose Garden presser. Behind us looms the ubiquitious press riser, and behind that the larger of the magnolia trees that Andrew Jackson planted, supposedly in memory of his late wife. The two living presidents are late. The sun comes out, and we grow hot in the suits. When two airplanes swing low over the Eisenhower Office Building next door, there is a moment in the small garden, bordered with lacecap hydrangeas, caladiums, begonias and boxwood, to appreciate the special genius of the place, the unique way in which the White House is both urban and pastoral. "We're being punished," an impatient reporter says. The moment passes.
A year-plus into his presidency, Barack Obama does not enjoy a good relationship with the White House press corps. Why? His staff are Masters of the Universe of Control. And he seldom gives a press conference. Alas, today is no exception. Calderon and Obama each deliver prepared remarks (the translation channel turns out to be one). Immigration,clearly, has been the topic of their private conversation. Now Obama says, "We acknowledge both our countries have responsibilities." He talks about accountability, from the federal government, from immigrants. He refers to what he calls "a mis-directed effort in Arizona." "My administration is taking a very close look at the Arizona law," he says. Twice he announces that the U.S. for our part is now screening southbound rail cargo "one hundred percent." But for President Calderon "mis-direction" is "discrimination." American immigration law and enforcement must "adjust itself in a realistic way to the needs of both our economies," he warns. "We firmly reject efforts to criminalize immigration."
What is the road ahead? Each president takes one question and then repeats earlier statements. "Every nation has the right to secure its borders," President Obama says. "We are a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants." And, of course, that's always been the issue, finding a balance between the two. I would have loved to have been a little bird in the room during the hour-plus conversation from which the presidents have just emerged. But wouldn't we all--perched there now in the Rose Garden? So the frustration that this is not a real press conference but a staged event is all the greater. As the men walk away from their twin podiums, a reporter calls out, "Any plans for a real press conference?"
President Obama frequently laces his speeches with little put-downs of the press, especially pundits. Although I get a lot about the man, here is one thing that I do not. The men and women around me are for the most part just trying to do their jobs. JOBS. Isn't that the mantra now in this White House? And the President doesn't need to fly to Youngstown, Ohio, as he did the day before the Calderon state visit, to meet with a group of working class stiffs. They are a wing away in the White House, almost but not quite living here, rather like squatters, lashed to the wheel of the ever-churning news cycle. This is one of the difficulties of the president-press relationship, for the White House is small, considering its purpose and use, and the President, any president, must sometimes feel the presence of the noisy, untidy and frequently discontent press as if reporters and burly cameramen are massed and looming over the West Wing from the trees outside rather than crammed into the low-ceilinged basement-like quarters to which they usually are restricted.
So I get, too, the mutual frustrations with the arrangements. But everything about the White House is a living history in which the reporter's role, perhaps uniquely there, is dual: participant and chronicler. At the end of the morning, I've participated; but I haven't seen much of substance to chronicle. It's more than frustrating because I have readers, people I've met and whose circumstances I've come to know, who live in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and who are involved in the immigration debate--a border rancher in Arizona, a community of the Old Spanish in Southern New Mexico, hard-working, honest (but illegal) immigrants in Houston. What can I give them from the state visit of Felipe Calderon to the White House?
Luckily, there is the State Dinner. And so at 4:30 PM, having been granted access to the preview for the dinner arrangements, I traipse with my small group up to the North entrance to the White House. A carpenter barks, "Don't step on my red carpet!" We maneuver around the plush, red and bordered in gold, new-laid for the guests who will be arriving in one hour. Past the gilded harp and the bamboo chairs awaiting arrangement, we march upstairs to the East Room, where the patina of history (these are the famous portraits of George and Martha Washington, these are the iconic nineteenth-century chandeliers) has been freshened for the evening with flowers for the tables and arrangements of cacti for the mantles, with the Clinton china and vermeil flatware and tiny gilded eagle place card holders sans cards. (When I inquire about the absence of cards, I am told that the White House does not want the press photographing a particular guest's place setting.)
And then a sprint to the lawn tent where a second group of guests, invited for dessert and entertainment, will be feted. Since I've seen many a party tent in my day, I'm not prepared for the beauty of this one. Felipe Calderon may be angry about the treatment of migrant Mexicans but surely he will be pleased by the magic of this dusky and yet twinkling orange and gold faux butterfly habitat, a tribute to his birthplace of Michoacan, where the Monarch butterfly migrates every spring.
Quickly, quickly, we are herded to Booksellers, the corner of a White House passageway where traditionally the press can photograph the guests as they pass through on their way to the East Room. Again it's hurry up and wait, as we stand for an hour, poring frantically over the guest list, which has just been released, researching on BlackBerries unfamiliar names, grasping for some sense of the choices made--more politicians than athletes and artists, no one from the Grands of American media (no Tom Brokaw, for example) although the presidents of Univision and Telemundo are there.
Eva Longoria, Gayle King and Whoopi Goldberg are the guests whose pictures and gowns will be scrutinized tomorrow. But the presence of Hollywood can give a false impression of the guests, who are mostly staid and composed (more than a few portly), assured in the dignity conferred upon them by their accomplishments. Pressed against the wall, I can crane my neck up to Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge, looking down with seeming benediction upon the slow procession. I don't mean to be snarky, because there is something moving, because quintessentially American, about the guests en masse, the way in which they personify our dreams of achievement.
My favorite moment belongs to Dolores Huerta, gracious with her time to a Mexican reporter and to me. I had last seen her grimy and disheveled, having worn the same clothes several days in a row, on the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton. Stately in her Oaxacan ensemble, she unclips her turquoise and silver earring to show us the butterfly design--a curious coincidence, given the Monarch theme of the lawn tent.
No one has forgotten the party crashers of last November. Every time a beautifully-gowned young woman passes by Booksellers without stopping, and no one, not even the White House aide standing next to me, knows quite who she is, we are all thinking the same thing: Salahi. We inquire about the security from the guests who come over to speak to us. Maria Elena Salinas, of Univision, says that she had gone through a lot. "Even body searches." I have a sudden vision of a Secret Service agent peeking under the large sash and bow at the back of her gown.
The very tight security for the state dinner has provoked some irritation among my compatriots. For the November dinner, the guest list, the menu and other goodies had been given out in advance. But not until an hour-and-a-half before tonight's soiree do we know much. In retrospect, I realize that I could have "scooped" everybody by a couple of hours with the news that Beyonce would be leading the evening's entertainment because around noon I had been sitting next to a young reporter talking about how she had just flown in for this one evening at the White House because Beyonce is her beat. That's the kind of scoop one can be reduced to around here.
At 7 PM Booksellers closes up shop. The guests have moved on to their herb green ceviche of Hawaiian Opah and Oregon Wagyu Beef in Oaxacan Black Mole. I can't help but think how displeased my locavore daughters would be, and really their entire generation who have gone "green," at the carbon trail left by that Opah as it flew from Hawaii to D.C. But that's the thing about policy, isn't it? Easy to pronounce, harder to implement.
I'm thinking about the Opah as I depart, a lone figure daring a shortcut down the North drive to the security entrance for press. Most everybody else has trudged back to the press quarters to continue working. When I had come in earlier in the day, moving ahead of the Foreign Nationals among the press waiting for their American escorts to enter the grounds, I had had a Peter Rabbit moment--suddenly I was beyond the fence, before me a vast expanse of lawn and nobody near. I wondered if I could just wander about as I pleased, although quickly I figured (correctly) not. Or, at least, not supposed to. As I leave, the guards are in their little house and talking sports, not paying much attention as I return my press badge. Closing the iron gate behind me, I realize that it has not latched, and it takes me ten seconds or so to lock it.