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Trailing Obama on White House 'pool duty'

By Scott Wilson

Last updated 1:27 p.m.
NEW DELHI -- President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are having a busy final day in India Monday - beginning with the pomp-and-circumstance of their official arrival in the capital, and continuing through an early afternoon news conference with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Obama's address to the Indian parliament and a formal state dinner that looked like something out of a fantasy.

To cover these events, I have been designated as part of today's White House "pool"--a small group of journalists who shadow the president and send up-to-the-minute reports to each of the reporters writing about this trip. There are about a dozen reporters, producers, photographers and videographers assigned to the pool each day. We trail the president closely, even when the other 90 or so journalists covering the trip are kept away. Those other journalists can use whatever details they want from my account in their news reports.

Below are today's raw "pool reports," slightly edited for understanding. The last one, about the state dinner, is posted at the top. Read down towards the bottom to see White House press secretary Robert Gibbs demanding access for us to see-- wait for it -- an essentially news-free photo op of Obama sitting down with Singh. Before we start, a quick glossary: POTUS stands for President of the United States; FLOTUS the First Lady of the United States.

Pool #7 Pool escorted through halls of Presidential Palace to the gardens behind.

The scene is something out of a fantasy. Acres and acres of gardens, criss-cossed by canals of clear water, stretch into the near distance. Throughout are hundreds, maybe thousands, of votive candles set in patterns of orange, white and lavender flower petals.

The score of the pre-dinner mingling is the muffled sound of hundreds of conversations, fountains, and the crackle and bang of fireworks from distant Diwali celebrations.

The US delegation lines up along one edge of a neatly trimmed lawn just behind the palace, the Indian delegation along the other. At 8:15pm, horns sound and guards in high black boots, red coats, carrying flags escort in the first couple, and President Patil and her husband. The four stand on a small patch of red carpet beneath canvas covering set high on poles.

A band begins playing the U.S. national anthem, and the first couple, and some in the delegation, place their hands over their hearts. The Indian national anthem follows.

Then, one by one, the 180 guests - military men in uniform, women in silk saris and gowns, executives and cabinet secretaries in dark suits - are announced, then pass by and shake hands with the first couple and often bow, peaked-hands together at chest level, to President Patil. It takes a half hour to work through the line.

After shaking hands with the heads of state, the guests walk to a large white tent set among the gardens, candles shimmering around it. The heads of state follow, taking seats a long head table with flowers like a spine running down the center. In between the head table and stages where Indian musicians play is a flower-petal pattern with the word "Welcome" around the side.

Please check transcripts for pair of toasts that followed. One line from POTUS toast, after he listed some of the "things we have learned on this trip:"

"And we have learned that no matter how hard I try, Michelle will always be a better dancer than I am."

Speaking of FLOTUS, she is wearing a floor-length silvery, shimmery skirt topped with a broad belt that appears sequined or studded with glittery stones. She wore a metallic taupe top, sleeves reaching to just above her wrists. Both top and skirt were designed by Rachael Roy, an Indian-American designer.

Pool holding while dinner served...

Pool #1: At 9:45am, POTUS limo stops at the end of a long red clay path, leading to the expansive reddish stone presidential palace, which has the appearance of a Mughal-era U.S. Capitol with a cupola and two wings.

Cannons sound as horses begin escorting POTUS limo down the red-clay path. The first couple emerge, and POTUS walks along a red carpet to stand alone on a platform, covered by a pitched red-canvas top with gold trim. The military band stretched in ranks before him plays the national anthems of the United States and India.
POTUS then walks on a red carpet toward the troops, turning to review them before making his way toward the covered seating area where various Indian and foreign dignitaries await handshakes. POTUS walks along with President Patil before him, and FLOTUS, PM Singh, and his wife, Gursharan Kaur next.

The group approaches podium before the press, receives a question from an Indian journalist on how he views his trip. Get from transcript, but in short, POTUS thanks India for hospitality, says the U.S.-India relationship should help define the 21st century as large democracies, and calls India a "world power."

FLOTUS is elegant in a black sweater and a below-the-knee skirt of light blue and teal. POTUS shakes hands first with President Patil, then PM Singh for the cameras.

The motorcade is to Raj Ghat, Gandhi's official tomb and the site of his cremation. (Gandhi's ashes were scattered in the Ganges, among other places.) Pool takes off shoes, as is custom to visit the site. POTUS and FLOTUS will be shoeless too...

Pool #2: First, the last of Gandhi's ashes were scattered off the coast of Durbin, So. Africa, in January 2010 by relatives.

Motorcade arrives at Raj Ghat at 10:15am.

The site is a sunken grassy courtyard with a flame burning inside a set of low white-marble walls. Flowered wreaths are draped over the walls, and at the center, next to the flame, is a square platform covered flower patterns of white, orange, lavender and green. The platform marks the site of Gandhi's cremation.

Sitar music begins over speakers.

From the left, POTUS and FLOTUS emerged, walking slowly in stocking-feet behind two U.S. Embassy employees carrying a large wreath of white flowers - red, white and blue ribbons cross at the center. The first couple stands in silence, heads bowed, before the platform. Then POTUS and FLOTUS toss several handfuls of flower petals on the platform, and in silence they walk back the way they came.

Motorcade rolling to Hyderabad House [where Prime Minister Singh works] at 10:30am...

Pool #3: More conflict between White House pool and Indian security, this time requiring intervention by [White House Press Secretary] Robert Gibbs.

Indian officials decided to cut agreed-upon number of WH pool allowed into spray of extended bilat (meeting between Obama and Singh) from eight to five. [White House press aide] Katie Lillie and other U.S. officials lobbied hard for the eight, but no luck until Gibbs announced loudly and persistently on steps of Hyderabad House that he would pull POTUS out of bilat with PM Singh unless "the White House 8," as we've come to be known, were all allowed in.

At one point, Gibbs literally had his foot lodged in the closing front door, asking if the Indian security officials pushing hard to shut it were going to break his foot. More angry words ensued, and after Gibbs convinced them, through high volume and repetition, that he was serious about pulling POTUS, we all made it inside, to hold with larger Indian press contingent, for start of extended bilat.

Finally escorted into spray at 11:55am. Delegations seated opposite each other along a long light-wood table, beneath a simple chandelier. POTUS and PM Singh sat across from each other at table's middle.

No words spoken, just smiles. Pool escorted out a minute later. Watch part of the scene:

Pool #4: POTUS held three bilats this pm at the ITC Maurya Hotel. No words were spoken [to reporters] at any of them, and pool spent less than a minute in each.

In order, POTUS met with Indian Vice President Mohammed Ansari. The two sat
in chairs placed at angles to each other. POTUS adviser in the room was Tom
Donilon.

POTUS then met with opposition leader Susma Swaraj, who, dressed in a
cream-colored sari, spoke with POTUS without any of her aides present.
Donilon and U.S. Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer were to POTUS's left.

Finally, POTUS met with Sonia Gandhi, leader of the National Congress Party.
Under Secretary of State for political affairs William Burns joined that
meeting, and Gandhi, dressed in a red sari, had three aides.

POTUS and Gandhi were chatting about his meeting with the vice president,
but conversation was largely inaudible.

Pool holding before heading to parliament....

Pool #5 Rolling along cleared streets toward parliament at 5:20 pm. Uneventful ride, except Gibbs along in the van to help pool get into speech, given problems earlier in the day.

Entry no trouble. POTUS entered Central Hall of Parliament House just after 5:30 pm to a standing ovation from lawmakers, in purple saris, white tunics, and a range of wardrobe.

He sits at a small wooden table and signs the Golden Book at the front of the circular, high-domed chamber, lined around the lower section in wood panel with stone above. The wooden helicopter-style floor fans rising periodically from the rows of lawmakers' desks were still.

POTUS, looking out over the room from a small dias festooned with pink and salmon-colored flowers and white lillies, is introduced by Rajya Sabha, paiament's chairman, who makes point of noting the president of the world's oldest democracy about to deliver a message to it largest.

POTUS speaks from a small wood podium, using Teleprompter. A portrait of Mohatma Gandhi in homespun clothes hangs above. You watched the speech, punctuated several times by applause, the loudest when he endorsed India's permanent seat on a reformed UN Security Council. Many lawmakers listened to the address through headphones - ie, in translation.

Rolling back to hotel at 6:30pm....

By Scott Wilson  | November 8, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  44 The Obama Presidency  
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Next: Obama reaches out to rural India via video conferencing

Comments

the city in South Africa is "Durban" not Durbin.
You think a reporter would know that.

Posted by: larryarobbo | November 8, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

I love how the President spent his first year in office running around the globe apologizing for past American arrogance, and then this pompous jerk Gibbs, is treated like a hero for "saving" the pool. What a bunch of hyprocrites...

Posted by: CaPatriot | November 8, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

I love how the President spent his first year in office running around the globe apologizing for past American arrogance, and then this pompous jerk Gibbs, is treated like a hero for "saving" the pool. What a bunch of hyprocrites...

Posted by: CaPatriot | November 8, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

I love how the President spent the first year in office running around the globe apologizing for past American arrogance, and then this pompous jerk Gibbs, is treated like a hero for "saving" the pool. What a bunch of hyprocrites...

Posted by: CaPatriot | November 8, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

The site where Gandhi was cremated is a must-see in Delhi. Not going there would be like coming to DC and not visiting the Lincoln Memorial. (Come to think of it, do heads of state routinely tour the Mall when on a state visit to DC?)

Posted by: Dan4 | November 8, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Great behind the scenes report. I hope all the fussing around over Gandhi won't be necessary on future trips to India, since President Obama devoted so much time to getting that out of the way on this one. A lot of sentiment in that, shared by a small number of Americans and evidently not high in the minds of most of the Indians we'll need to work with in the future.

Posted by: jbritt3 | November 8, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

Great behind the scenes report. I hope all the fussing around over Gandhi won't be necessary on future trips to India, since President Obama devoted so much time to getting that out of the way on this one. A lot of sentiment in that, shared by a small number of Americans and evidently not high in the minds of most of the Indians we'll need to work with in the future.

Posted by: jbritt3 | November 8, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

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