Tuesday, May 23, 2006

My day in lockdown

I was officially part of the White House press pool yesterday, with the achy joints and overstretched bladder to prove it. As Nation’s Restaurant News’ designee to cover President Bush’s speech at the association’s annual convention in Chicago, I expected a journalistic thrill, if not a sniff of glamour. Instead, I came away with considerable sympathy for witnesses placed under government protection.

For one thing, you’d think they’d have let the national correspondents get close to the President, given their mission of capturing every word and nuance of the presentation. But during my day of hanging fire with that illustrious crew, we were seated in another zip code—the equivalent of the rooftop across the street from Wrigley Field. And this was after one-time members like me had been “credentialed,” which meant supplying information for a security clearance. No wonder the regular correspondents shout out questions to Bush every time he gets in a car or skips up the ramp of Air Force One. Those may be the only times he’s within earshot.

But the biggest surprise was how little freedom we had. We were encouraged to be there early, so most of us were on the scene before 8 a.m. for what was then supposed to be a 9 o’clock appearance by the Commander in Chief. I learned en route to the event that Bush would actually take the stage at 10:30.

So there I was at 7:45, sitting in what amounted to a cattle pen. We’d been escorted to our seats by a delegate of the White House press office, which had enough of a posse there to monitor us on roughly a one-to-one, tender-to-aisle ratio. If we tried to move to better seats, someone scrambled over to goad us back. If we wanted to use the bathroom, we had to be escorted. When a case of bottled water was somehow smuggled in, the containers were as prized as food packets in a famine area..

Mercifully, the NRA had supplied members of its crackerjack communications staff as “volunteers” for the press office (apparently no other body can officially do the press office’s work, so any assistance from affiliated parties has to come from “volunteers.”) They were friendly despite having shown up hours earlier than we had, and once even allowed us to violate the rules by—oh, the scandal!—taking a cup of coffee to our seats (no food or beverage was allowed in the theater, apparently lest it be hurled stage-ward).

So we sat there for three hours, unequipped for anything but transcendental meditation and sleep. Most of the time you couldn’t even get a cell-phone signal. A colleague had brought the book-review section of the prior day’s paper. There was more than brief talking of mugging her.

A lucky few had their laptops with them. The rest of us dreamt of a world where a deck of cards could be readily procured, or you could head to the bathroom without a guardian at age 49.

But even that privilege was revoked during the final hour of the wait. We couldn’t eat, drink, stand up, or even use the bathroom. It was a total lockdown.

Even worse was the post-speech holding time, when we had to sit there until the President had left the premises. We, the ones with the deadlines, were kept in our seats by a police line of volunteer handlers while the rest of the 4,000 attendees blithely skipped up the stairs and into freedom, where they no doubt enjoyed coffee with abandon. We sat and sloshed for a good 15 or 20 additional minutes, trying to remember what porcelain looked like.

You can read what the experience yielded in the Breaking News section of our website, www.nrn.com.

No comments:

Post a Comment