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Psst...The President Ate Here Last Night

The word first got out via a text message sent with great urgency on Friday night. The president of the United States had stopped in at a neighborhood chili joint in Bethesda. Barack Obama had taken his children to an event at the Imagination Stage children's theater and then "came across the street to visit Hard Times Cafe, where he had chili and wings," according to an email that repeated the text message.

That email begat another email and onward through the ether. Obamamania being what it is in certain circles, pretty soon a couple of Washington Post reporters were on the case.

The sources looked reasonably credible. Here was an email from Anne Robbins, an elected member of the Rockville City Council. Robbins got the news about the president's dinner from her daughter, who in turn got it straight from Chris Mack, who works as a manager at Hard Times. "Chris watched as the president, Malia, and Sasha came in," the email said. Mack "was really pleased to talk to the president about Hawaii, since Chris is from there. Chris immediately texted Brennan [Robbins' daughter], because she is a great Obama person; I talked to both of them, and they were 'over the moon.' By the way, Chris told me that he told the president to come to Hard Times because the chili is as good as [at] Ben's Chili Bowl."

Robbins told me she volunteered to let the press know about the visit and the restaurant manager heartily endorsed the idea.

But over the weekend, Post Reliable Source columnist Amy Argetsinger checked Robbins' account against the White House press corps pool report, the minute-by-minute diary of the president's public movements:

"The president and first lady made an unscheduled trip to Bethesda for an extracurricular school recital at Imagination Stage, a facility that specializes in kids' events. No deets on which daughter was performing, or what the show was about."

So far, so good. But the pool report petered out after that:

"Small groups of onlookers gathered on sidewalks around the venue. Pool didn't see any of the Obama family at any point in the evening; held at a nearby Lebanese restaurant for about 45 minutes, back at the White House by 8:30 p.m."

Could the prez have snuck in for a quick bowl of chili without drawing the attention of the reporter who drew the short straw and got stuck doing pool coverage of a kids' event on a Friday night in Bethesda? Conceivable, but looking doubtful.

Argetsinger checked in at the restaurant and talked to Mack, who gave it up: Yes, the Secret Service had camped out at the restaurant while the president was at the show, and that got everyone joking, hoping, wishing about how Obama was going to come in for food. From there, the manager said, people starting spreading the word about the presidential visit on Facebook and Twitter. (Mack didn't return my calls or messages.)

We couldn't find hard evidence that the rumor traveled very far, but it did at least zip around Montgomery County. "The story's gone everywhere," Robbins told me. "I went to the Hard Times in Rockville over the weekend and everyone was talking about how the president was at their restaurant in Bethesda."

As late as Monday morning, when Robbins got an email from a friend who expressed skepticism about the chili story, the council member responded that it simply had to be true.

But it didn't take long for me to persuade Robbins that she had fallen for a hoax. "I thought it had to be true," she said. "I'm mortified."

Robbins is chagrined that she fell for the false report, but she understands the desire to get close to a charismatic president. Her first job in Washington was a White House internship during the Kennedy Administration and "my feet never hit the floor the whole time I was here," she said.

We agreed that stories like this are likely to pop up all around town in the coming years--a result of the popular fascination with this president and the fact that he seems intent on being more of a local presence than his two predecessors ever were. In the past week alone, Obama has dined at Citronelle in Georgetown and Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington--the latter just yesterday at the lunch hour, with the vice president. And those meals really happened--you can check the pool report.

By Marc Fisher |  May 6, 2009; 7:55 AM ET  | Category:  City life , Culture , Food , Maryland , Nightlife , The President , Virginia
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Comments

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This story worries me. I see the underlying meaning as not being about Obama's interactions with the local area but, rather, as representing the sort of "reporting" we get when no one checks the facts.

What's the old newspaper saying? Check it out -- even if your mother swears to you on a stack of Bibles that the story is true. Without someone like Amy or Marc being paid to check out the story, who would do so?

Now, who really cares whether this particular incident was true? But in a world of amateur bloggers, gossipy e-mailers, and half-a**ed reporters, you can easily imagine how a serious incident could have unnerving results.

Buy a copy of the POST and support serious journalism!

Posted by: dbkirby | May 6, 2009 4:34 PM

Marc, the past tense of sneak is "sneaked," not snuck. Of course, I shouldn't assume that a "journalist" these days actually knows the English language...

Posted by: JohnnyReb1 | May 7, 2009 9:37 AM

JohnnyReb1

According to Merriam-Webster, snuck is a past and past participle of sneak. I think that if MW defines it that way, it would be safe to use it that way.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/snuck

Posted by: DadWannaBe | May 7, 2009 5:32 PM

Well, looks like it's time to set the record straight. NO, I did not start the rumor that Obama ate at Hard Times. Before the president even left Del Ray Ave in Bethesda, the rumor on the street in Bethesda was that he was at Hard Times eating wings. Right after he left, one of the owners call the restaurant and said that he saw it on the news that Obama ate at Hard Times. I thought it was funny how rumors like these take off so quickly. So, myself and a few others at Hard Times were messing with people about the situation. I sent a text out to 20 people saying that Obama ate at Hard Times, 19 of those people replied back and said I was full of it. The only person who took it seriously called her mother and told her. This person's mother called me and I continued the joke with her mother. During my conversation with her mother, she never once said she was going to contact the Washington Post. If she had mentioned or asked that she was going to contact the newspaper, I would've told her right then and there that it was all a joke. I spoke to someone from the Washington Post and told them it was just a joke. I NEVER spoke to Marc Fisher about any of this. He had called the restaurant and had sent me an email, but I was too busy to get in touch with Mr. Fisher. If you are upset over this joke that has gotten way out of hand, I apologize whole heartedly. If you are seriously bothered by it, let me know and I will buy you a box of tissues. What you read from Marc Fisher was 2nd and 3rd hand information; none of it was from me. And honestly, I feel our time can be spent in much more productive ways, rather than worrying about where the president did or didn't eat. This was all a joke! We played off the rumors that had already been started. For all those who don't know me, I'm a jokester; I love to laugh because life is way too short to be stressed out all the time.
Finally, to all those who fell for it, YOU GOT PUNK'D!! For those who didn't fall for it, way to be on point, I gotta keep you on your toes!

Thanks for you time.
Chris Mack

Posted by: bigcmack | May 9, 2009 2:47 PM

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