Spending the day at the White House

WhiteHouse.jpgOn a family vacation sometime during the Clinton administration, I reached through the metal gates ringing the most famous residence in the country and stuffed a chunk of earth in my pocket, later dropping it in an envelope back at the hotel marked “White House Grass” and licking the seal closed. Some fifteen or so years later, I still have that free souvenir from my first trip to Washington, D.C.

This job has afforded me many cool experiences that I never would have otherwise had, but today might have been a new one for the record books. For approximately three hours this afternoon, I was able to report on an event taking place in the State Dining Room at the White House, watching in the same room as Curtis Granderson while Michelle Obama outlined plans for a new movement targeted at eliminating childhood obesity in America.

The news story on MLB.com hits all the bases (excuse the pun) of what transpired today at the press event in Washington, but I want to talk a little about what it was like to actually have the opportunity to join the White House press corps for a day — something that I certainly never dreamed of doing.

The first thing to note is that the mugshot picture I’ve been using on this blog is misleading. I don’t break out a suit and tie except for special events, and I suppose that Game 6 of the World Series qualified as one (I think I’ve only worn a suit once since Nov. 4). Visiting 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue did fit that bill, so the best duds I own made the trip on Amtrak down to D.C. on Monday night. (Of course, I’m still such an amateur at packing, I had to spring for a $30 belt in the hotel gift shop.)

After chatting briefly with Granderson before he stopped his day for breakfast, I headed over to the White House, thinking that a 9:30 arrival would give me plenty of time to set up for the event. Wrong. When the White House says they’ll see you at 10:30, you don’t show up before your call time – this isn’t Yankee Stadium, when you can come in and work 12 hours before the game if you want to. That sent me wandering to a coffee shop to kill a few minutes and transcribe my interview with Curtis, watching the minutes tick by until I could go back and try it again.

Thumbnail image for stateroom.JPGOnce the gates buzz open, the security procedure is much like you’d experience at any busy airport, so that wasn’t too harsh — thankfully, there were no rubber gloves involved. You know how they tell celebrating wide receivers to “act like you’ve been there before?” Well, I’d never been to the White House before, and I wasn’t about to pretend that I knew where I was going. Luckily, I latched on with a few other first-timers and we eventually poked our way through the front doors of the White House.

The first thing you see when you pass the armed guards is the huge seal of the President over the entryway, with portraits of George H.W. Bush to the left and Bill Clinton to the right. Right about this time, I was overcome with the same feeling you get at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — everything is right there to touch, but don’t you dare go anywhere near it, because everybody is watching you.

Thumbnail image for president seal.JPGA few cameras were setting up in the State Dining Room, where the press event was to be held, and I took a while to admire the ornate chandeliers and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln over the fireplace – still making sure not to touch anything. Someone was setting up an audio connection near me, and a White House staffer came over to admonish him: “When have we ever put wires under the carpets?”

“I’m sorry, sir, I’m sorry,” he kept repeating. To which the staffer answered, “Don’t call me sir. We’re friends now.”

I didn’t know what to make of that, but after a few minutes watching the press corps dwindle, I began to suspect that I was in the wrong place. After wandering into the setup for a different event in the East Room, I finally asked for help and was redirected to the Briefing Room in the West Wing, where we were to hang out for the remaining hour or so until the First Lady would begin speaking.

This was where I learned that, even among these hardened political reporters, covering Major League Baseball is considered somewhat glamorous. When someone eyed my credential, they asked why MLB.com would want to be here, and I mentioned that Granderson was in town for the event. “I am a huge Yankees fan,” he replied, and I spent most of the next 20 minutes swapping shop talk with a reporter who covers events much more important than I do.

Thumbnail image for obamatiki.JPGEventually the call time came, and we were herded back into the State Dining Room by a helpful intern. I had strategically left my computer bag and jacket next to a riser in the back of the room, knowing that I’d need a good vantage point to be able to snap any photos worth keeping. Unfortunately, Granderson never took to the podium, but among the many I took were good shots of Mrs. Obama and former NFLer Tiki Barber, who did a nice job serving as the emcee and comic relief.

Around 1:15, Mrs. Obama thanked everyone for coming and concluded her statements, and my run as a White House reporter was over. I said goodbye to Granderson, told him that we’d see each other in about a week down in Tampa, and took a few last looks around before walking out those iconic steps and through the iron gates back onto Pennsylvania Avenue.

About a decade and a half after my first trip to the White House grounds, I realized that I was about to leave the premises without any sort of tangible souvenir, save for a printout press release from the Office of the First Lady that I folded into four quadrants and stuffed into my pocket. So, I had a passing reporter snap the below photo of me, apologizing repeatedly but telling him, “I don’t know if I’ll ever get this chance again.” It’s no envelope filled with grass and dirt, but it will do just fine.

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