"Ladies and gentlemen. The program will begin shortly."
A disembodied voice really does say that about 15 minutes before the presidential news conference. You half expect to see Greg Giraldo come out to warm up the crowd.
On the suggestion of a reader, here's a moment-by-moment travelogue of what it's like to attend a presidential news conference at the White House. I'm a security geek, but I'm going to omit a few details that might otherwise help bad people do bad things.
So the first thing you do to get in to the White House on newser night -- incidentally a "newser" is journospeak for "news conference," which, because it includes a statement at the top, is different from a "presser," which is just a Q and A. But journalists use both terms interchangeably -- the first thing you do is to apply for a seat.
The White House received more than 1,000 applications for 250 seats.
Most of them are allocated to holders of White House hard passes. Since I don't get to the White House everyday, I don't qualify for a hard pass. But it's pretty easy to get into the White House if you're an accredited reporter: you can call the press office, and they'll submit your name, Social Security number and date of birth through a system called WAVES, which subjects you to an automatic background check and figures out if your name is on a Secret Service watch list.
Thankfully, WAVES never holds me up. At that point, it's as easy as showing your ID to the guard at the West Front gate, going through the magnetometer, and walking into the White House. Well, it's a little more complicated, but, again, in the interest of security, I'll be vague. An interesting twist: non-U.S. citizens have to be escorted everywhere they go...even members of the press. Different passes give different levels of access.
Interlude: Sometimes, if we're interviewing senior officials, we're given "A" passes. There two types; "A" alone, and "A" with the words "ESCORT"." The regular "A" pass can get you anywhere in the West Wing except for the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room and a few other corners and crannies. Last week, as I sat waiting in the West Wing lobby for an appointment, I noticed that Ret. Gen. Scott Gration, the President's point person on Sudan, had the same pass as I did. Richard Holbrooke, the increasingly powerful envoy to Af-Pak-everywhere else, rushed through the lobby. He wasn't wearing a pass. He yelled at an assistant that he "needed to go catch up with Hillary." Also -- somewhat weirdly, as I waited, I listened to a Marine guard and the uniformed Secret Service agent on duty quietly argue about the torture memos.
Anyway, a pass or WAVES access alone won't get you into the East Room for the news conference. You've got to win that lottery. Once you do, you're allocated a credential with a number on it. Last night, I was "245," which corresponded to seat 245 on a map that's given to President Obama and television producers so they can find reporters who are on the question list.
Last night, I arrived at the White House early, picked up my news conference pass, and then left the complex to go meet with a source.
45 minutes later, I was caught in a line of reporters outside the West Front gate, but I was back in the complex by 6:30 pm.
The press briefing room was filled to capacity, so I waited outside in the light rain, watching the Secret Service shift changes and counting the number of cigarette stubs on the ground.
At 7:00, a press aide began to escort us up the stairs, round a bend, and through the famous front doors of the White House. Don't try to bring water into the residence --- they'll confiscate it. I snuck some in anyway.
Then we wait. Most of us have prepared questions, even though there's a roughly one in twenty chance that we'll be asked. Actually, fewer than one in 20, because all the network correspondents get a question. Last night, Fox's Major Garrett didn't, but maybe the White House was retaliating because the Fox network decided it did not want to lose more money and refused to air the presser.
The more experienced correspondents amble in later; the eager beaver newsbies -- like me -- get in there early, even though we have assigned seating. Last night, I was placed between the New York Post's Charlie Hurt and the presidential historian Martha Joynt Kumar. CSPAN's Steve Scully escorted Helen Thomas, still the dean of the press corps, to her front-row seat.
After spending some time chatting with Kumar about the history of presidential press conferences, I joked around a bit with the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza about seating: what would it take to get Chuck Todd to rush out -- so we could grab his seat in the front row? We recalled a Murphy Brown episode where the lead character telephoned her network's White House reporter and told him that his wife was in labor. The reporter bolted and Murph got the seat.
Then comes the surreal stuff.
There's a moment -- usually with about two minutes to go -- where four or five network correspondents, standing feet apart, talk over each other, saying much the same thing. Then you hear the voice of CBS's Mark Knoller, who gives a last minute radio update. Then the same from ABC's Ann Compton.
Ed Henry finished his stand-up early. Only NBC's Chuck Todd and CBS's Chip Reid were left standing.
Chuck groaned. He knew that he and Chip were about to stumble over one another.
Chuck then realized that everyone was looking at him. He informed his producer of this.
Then he joked that someone was going to Twitter the conversation. (I did.)
Chip, who has sworn off Twitter and has never been on Facebook, dryly wondered how many people would read it.
Chuck misheard Chip, thinking that Chip was talking about ratings.
So Chuck struck back, saying something like: "Do we really want to get into a ratings comparison?"
Everyone from the photogs to members of Obama's staff said "Oooooh."
Then, at about 8:01, Obama's senior staff filed in -- the top advisers to the south side of the room and the comms staff on the north side. The announcer introduces the President. We all stand up. The teleprompter begins to roll....
Why, if we get the transcript right away, do we take notes? A few of us have TV hits after, so we need to jot down our thoughts. And the print writers face tight deadlines, so they've got to write their articles in shorthand, essentially, during the newser. (BTW: the White House sent around the transcript at 8:15 am...not exactly promptly!)
Ah darn. Michael Scherer of Time asks my question about the state secrets privilege. But he asks it better than I would have, and I'm glad that we now have the president on the record about this subject.
After the news conference, people are mean. The anchors have to do their stand-ups, but everyone is standing up and in each others way. The camera guys and gals begin to yell. "Down in front." "Damn it, get down." People push each other. It's best to scramble for an exit or stay in your seat.
I had a 9:20 pm live hit from the front lawn for a CBS webcast.
In a light rain, Chip Reid and I walked to the area known as "Pebble Beach." That's where all the networks have permanent camera set-ups. We asked each other what the lead of the night was. I attempted a metaphor about cars. We both agreed that there really wasn't much of a lead.
At Pebble Beach, Obama's two senior advisers, Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, moved from location-to-location. Jarrett spent nine minutes answering Katie Couric's questions and then popped out the CBS earpiece, walked about twenty feet to her left, and put in an NBC earpiece.
I chatted with some lower-level staffers. "How'd he do?" one asked me. I insisted that my answer be off-the-record.
I then did the CBS News hit. I used the same earpiece as Valerie Jarrett, which is either cool or gross. (A little of both, right?)
At 9:45, CBS News executive producer Rick Kaplan wrapped me for the night.
By 9:50, I was back at the West Front Gate to hand in my pass.
In Lafayette Park, I saw flashing lights and a gaggle of Secret Service Uniformed Division Officers.
"What's going on?" I asked the gate officer.
"Just some stupid protest," he said.