I stood outside the White House, sweating through my blazer, holding my tripod and backpack containing my camera gear. A mix up in the press office left me off the security list. So I stood outside one of the nation’s most highly secured buildings like a creep for a few minutes Wednesday, which seemed like eternity.
Luckily, my boss, Jody, came to the rescue. After a quick call to the press office, the issue was resolved, I got my red temporary access pass and was politely let through the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
I was there to report on President Barack Obama awarding the National Medals of Arts and National Humanities Medals to some of the most esteemed writers and artists alive in the United States. “Do NOT mess this one up,” I told myself.
I walked up the driveway with my fellow reporters to the press room. On that short walk, I realized the White House was much different than I had imagined.
First of all, it’s not gigantic. I think this reflects well on Americans. A modest house fits a government by the people, for the people. I certainly wouldn’t mind living there. It’s still much bigger than any house I will ever own, but it didn’t have the mansion-like presence I had pictured.
The press room itself was also less glamorous than I had expected. A small kitchen with two vending machines and a table greeted me. I had expected glamorous marble walls, instead I found yellowy drywall.
It wasn’t until I reached the press briefing room that everything started to look like I’d pictured it. I sat down and read a book for a few minutes, then made my way to the kitchen for lunch. I’m a former “Today Show” intern, and I sat right next to the NBC cameramen. Either they admired my boldness, or pitied my naivety, but they were kind enough to fill me in on the dos and don’ts of reporting in the White House. Thanks to their advice, I realized the chairs in the briefing room were designated for specific news outlets, so I stood against the wall when I returned. I guess they forgot to place my plaque between the Associated Press and The Washington Post.
Although I was at the White House to cover a separate event, I stuck around for the daily press briefing for a few minutes. I watched as reporters from my favorite publications raised their hands in hopes that Jay Carney would pick them to ask a question next. The tumultuous relationship between the press and the presidential spokesman has never been displayed so clearly to me. Carney had limited time and his pick of who would ask questions and in what order. Journalists tried their best to conduct sufficient interviews with just a few questions, trying to discern between facts and public relations rhetoric.
When it was finally time to move to the East Room, I carried my camera and joined the stampede of my fellow reporters. Having already set up my tripod, I pranced proudly to the platform and settled into my spot with a terrific vantage point of the stage.
After waiting for a few minutes, the medal recipients waltzed into the room and took their seats in the front row. I stared at George Lucas, excited to text my father later to let him know that I was just feet away from the man who created “Star Wars” (we’re a pretty nerdy family).
Finally, the Marine Band played, and Obama and first lady Michelle Obama entered the room.
Michelle sparkled more than she does on television. I was instantly struck with hair-envy as her perfectly quaffed bob reflected the light. I think I even saw Martha Washington give a thumbs up from her portrait on the wall.
It was surreal listening to the president speak with the same pauses and breaks I hear on television. The ceremony was beautifully done, and I am honored to have witnessed it.
After the awards were given, the president, first lady and guests were escorted into a separate room for a private party. My invitation got lost in the mail, so I followed the rest of the reporters out of the White House and down the driveway and gave up my pass.
As I headed back to work to finish my story, I reflected on the amazing experience and reminded myself not to take it for granted. Sometimes, I get so caught up in working that I forget to take a minute to just enjoy my surroundings. I took one last dramatic glance toward the White House before walking through the gate and headed down the sidewalk with the tourists and commuters.