In the Pool With the President
ANCHORENA PARK, Uruguay -- Life on the road with the president is an endless series of hurry-up-and-wait movements, wakeup calls, security sweeps, bus rides, plane flights, more security sweeps, motorcades, crushing deadlines, late nights and long hours spent sitting in vans or hotel ballrooms turned into filing centers. Only occasionally does it involve actually watching the president doing or saying anything of consequence.
Because so many reporters, photographers, cameramen, producers and sound guys from newspapers, wire services, television and radio networks follow President Bush on an overseas visit like this one, only a few are included in a rotating "pool" that rides on Air Force One or in his motorcade to events. The rest fly on a separate press charter, stay in a different hotel and work out of a filing center where senior officials rarely if ever set foot. It's possible to go all day traveling with the president without seeing him.
None of this is particular to Bush, by the way. It works more or less the same way as it did under Bill Clinton, although Clinton's closest aides were more likely to stop by the filing center and answer a few questions.
To give a sense of how this works, it might be instructive to walk through a single day in the life of the reporter in the pool. Saturday proved to be a pretty classic example. Warning: Here comes some of that whining you were warned about at the beginning of this blog last week. But the serious point, if there is one, is to show how limited access really is to a president and his top advisers.
1 a.m. local time Saturday (10 p.m. Friday EDT) -- The traveling White House staff and press arrive at their hotels in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, after a long day in Brazil and an evening flight that landed after midnight. Fortunately, the White House keeps all the passports for those traveling with the president, so we don't have to go through customs.
5:15 a.m. (2:15 a.m.) -- Reporters and lower-ranking White House staff staying in the press hotel report for buses that will take them to the main event of the day, a "Joint Press Availability" between President Bush and Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez. The good news is the event will be at a peaceful, woodsy ranch that is the Uruguayan equivalent of Camp David. The bad news is it's a three-hour bus ride away.
8 a.m. (5 a.m.) -- Reporters who are in the pool and some White House staff report to accompany the president (POTUS, in White House lingo) to the event. Everyone is "swept" by Secret Service, meaning they pass through magnotometers and their bags are hand-searched by agents and checked out by bomb-sniffing dogs. The pool generally includes one reporter from each of the three main wire services, a radio reporter, a newsmagazine reporter and several photographers. A single television crew provides footage to other networks and a single newspaper reporter files pool reports on everything he or she sees for the other reporters unable to get so close. For this day, I am the pool newspaper reporter.
8:30 a.m. (5:30 a.m.) -- After their three-hour trip, the buses carrying the non-pool journalists pull up to Estancia Anchorena, the retreat located in Anchorena Park, a picturesque expanse along the water far away from civilization. For unknown reasons, it takes another 40 minutes to get permission to enter the gates. Once through, reporters and staff are swept.
8:50 a.m. (5:50 a.m.) -- The president's motorcade departs the Radisson Montevideo Victoria Plaza Hotel, where Bush is staying and heads to a designated landing zone for Marine One, his helicopter. The hotel is located on Plaza Independencia, a main square, but today it looks like a ghost town, blocked off by hundreds of security agents. Across from the hotel is hand-painted graffiti that says, "Fuera Bush Asesino!!" or "Get Out Bush, Murderer!!"
9 a.m. (6 a.m.) -- The president arrives at a grassy strip along the Rio de la Plata river that separates Uruguay from Argentina. The motorcade includes 31 vehicles plus at least a dozen police motorcycles, including two identical, armored black limousines flown in from Washington. One is for the president, the other is a decoy. We ride in the 28th vehicle. It's not armored. Bush boards Marine One, which has also been flown in for the visit, and takes off. Two identical helicopters follow with his staff. Two Navy MH-53 choppers then land to take reporters and lower-ranking staff. Unlike the comfortable Marine One, these Navy choppers are utilitarian machines meant for troops; three dozen of us cram inside with earphones to try to block out the roar. The unlucky few find hydraulic fluid leaking on them.
9:57 a.m. (6:57 a.m.) -- Marine One lands at the ranch. The staff and press helicopters land first so everyone is waiting when the president disembarks. A second motorcade awaits him here, including two identical black Chevy Suburbans also flown in from the United States. The president's vehicle pulls up to the main house, a waterfront white manor with green trim that resembles a Swiss chalet and is surrounded by lush trees. The press and lower-ranking staff are then taken to a press filing center set up in a nearby white tent to join the reporters and staff who came by bus. A bad sign: Insect spray has been left on each table. I file the first pool report of the day providing the basic, mundane details of Bush's flight here. Carlton Carroll, the ultra-efficient, ever-patient, unfailingly-nice young aide in the White House press office who helps us solve myriad logistical hassles, forwards it by email to a long roster of White House reporters and others on a distribution list.
11:50 a.m. (8:50 a.m.) -- Bush and Vazquez hold a Joint Press Availability in another tent with the postcard-perfect landscape as a backdrop and the chirping of birds as a soundtrack. This is the only real news event of the day and it is "Open Press," meaning all journalists can attend, not just those in the pool. But it's not a full-fledged news conference. Just two Americans are called on, Bret Baier of Fox News, who asks Bush about reports of FBI abuses of anti-terrorist intelligence-gathering powers, and Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times, who asks why Bush refuses to even say the name of his regional bete noire, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Bush makes some news on the first question and ducks the second. Bush seems eager for lunch because first he mentions the Uruguayan barbecue that awaits him and then twice says the blueberries here are supposed to be wonderful. The availability is over in 25 minutes. As the senior staff departs with Bush, none stays to talk with reporters, although as he walks out press secretary Tony Snow calls over to Rutenberg to say he plans to phone him later. Snow evidently is not happy that the Times led the day's paper with Chavez's anti-Bush rally in Buenos Aires and wants to complain.
1:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m.) -- The pool is loaded into vans to go back to the helicopters. But after arriving at the landing zone, security officers order us back into the vans and back to the filing center.
2:50 p.m. (11:50 a.m.) -- The pool is put back in the vans and taken back to the landing zone again. This time, Bush shows up in his Chevy Suburban, boards Marine One and takes off at 3:10 p.m. We follow in the Navy choppers. The rest of the press boards their buses for the three-hour overland trip back to Montevideo.
4:06 p.m. (1:06 p.m.) -- Marine One lands back at the landing zone in Montevideo. This is our only other encounter of the day with senior staff. National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley walks by and, without breaking stride, says, "Hi, everyone," before ducking into his vehicle in the motorcade. Bush returns to the hotel. Along the way, a young White House aide tells us the president went on a boat ride with Vazquez, although we did not see it ourselves.
5:10 p.m. (2:10 p.m.) -- The pool and some junior staff report to accompany Bush to a reception at the U.S. ambassador's house. Secret Service agents sweep us again, although we have never left the security "bubble." While we wait, Gordon Johndroe, the National Security Council spokesman, comes by to tell us that Bush has sent Congress a letter asking for money to send more troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. I send out a second pool report informing other reporters of this news.
5:55 p.m. (2:55 p.m.) -- The pool is loaded into the motorcade vans.
6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.) -- The president leaves for the reception, arriving 15 minutes later at the stately mansion of Ambassador Frank E. Baxter. The pool sees nothing and is escorted to "hold," to use the vernacular for "wait," in a basement room, where some of the wait staff kindly offers appetizers from the party upstairs.
7:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m.) -- The president leaves the ambassador's residence and heads back toward the hotel. The schedule says this is his last "public" event of the day. But as we approach the hotel, suddenly the motorcade screeches to a halt and all the photographers tumble out of the vans to run hundreds of yards to catch Bush getting out of the limousine at the front. This is an OTR, in White House jargon, or Off the Record, meaning a stop not included on the schedule. It turns out Bush has made plans to go out and have dinner -- or rather Mrs. Bush insisted they go out. The only problem: The motorcade stopped at the wrong address. Suddenly people are shouting and the stampeding photographers turn around and start stampeding back to the vans. The motorcade revs up again and takes off -- all of 500 yards or so, this time to the right address. The pool gets out of the vans again, but is not invited inside. We wait outside Tavern La Corte restaurant while the president eats.
9 p.m. (6 p.m.) -- The president emerges along with the first lady (or FLOTUS), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Baxter and his wife, Kathy, after a meal of milanesas, or breaded beef, and homemade ravioli caprese. With the cameras snapping away, Bush throws his arms around the chef, Tomas Vartesaghi, and the owner, Marcelo Angres, and offers a three-star review, then pats his stomach. Hoping to catch the president's attention and engage him in any kind of conversation, Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press asks whose idea it was to go to dinner. "It was my idea," Laura says. But that's as far as the president wants the conversation to go, so he makes one last testimonial for the chef. "I strongly recommend that you have dinner," he tells the pool. Then he jumps back in the limousine for a one-minute drive back to the hotel.
11 p.m. (8 p.m.) -- There's just enough time to file a final pool report and write a story for the newspaper before crashing for a few hours of sleep.
A long day, but actually an easy one compared to what's ahead for us on Sunday: We have to report at 3:45 a.m. (which will be 2:45 a.m. EDT). We will then leave for the airport in Uruguay to fly to Bogota, Colombia, and then after a day of events there we'll fly on to Guatemala City, Guatemala, where our day will end at 10:45 p.m. local time, or 12:45 a.m. EDT Monday. The time zones will be especially confusing -- we will start the day three hours ahead of Washington, but because daylight savings time switches in the United States and Uruguay at the same time but in opposite directions, it means we'll then be one hour ahead before takeoff. Then in Bogota, we'll be one hour behind Washington. And finally, in Guatemala, we'll be two hours behind. All in a single, easy, three-country, 22-hour day.
See what I mean about the whining? Actually, we shouldn't complain. It's an extraordinary job in a lot of ways, certainly an important one with enormous responsibility, and we both appreciate it and take our obligations seriously. But like any job, it's not always as glamorous as it may look on television.
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