By Ariana Stone
I didn’t prepare differently than usual. Looking back, that was a mistake – I should have come armed with elbow pads and sharpened teeth.
I was on assignment for the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire and the Island Packet, local paper of Bluffton and Hilton Head in my home state of South Carolina, to cover an awards ceremony that included a woman from Bluffton. I felt a strong imperative to do the job right. This was why I felt a twinge of panic after entering the White House briefing room to see a swarm of reporters storming around and cursing.
Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had been killed, and in a last-minute schedule change, President Barack Obama was to give a statement in the White House Rose Garden about the significance of the event. The difficult part was determining what the schedule was. What about the medal ceremony? How long will the Gaddafi speech be? The people who did respond to my questions didn’t sugarcoat a thing. As I lingered a few seconds in the hallway outside the East Room, a White House staffer yelled at me to leave. “You’re here to cover the event,” she said, “not attend it.”
I returned where I started, the press briefing room, to get my bearings and hopefully – by divine intervention or eavesdropping – find a solution to my little problem.
That solution came in the form of a figure in a suit who I noticed standing alone in the back of the room, surveying the situation. It was Bart Sullivan, Scripps Howard News Service political reporter. I gave him a sheepish smile and approached him.
Lucky for me, Bart was willing and able to give some guidance. To make a long story short, I ended up attending the Gaddafi speech and the medal ceremony. With some pointed questions to the right people, Bart helped me figure out where to go and how much time I had. He also gave me some pointers about how to snag an interview with some of ceremony honorees and said he would email me the White House transcript of the event.
The situation was chaotic and, until you’re there yourself, you can’t know how crazy it can be in a White House press area. Reporters are understandably aggressive because they have to file stories on deadline, and most had an advantage – they knew exactly what to do and how to do it. I, on the other hand, felt like a 2-year-old in the deep end.
All business aside, the experience was unforgettable. When Obama solemnly approached the Rose Garden podium and said, “Good afternoon,” I felt chills. As he talked about the fall of the “iron fist” of oppression, I felt as if I was witnessing history unfold, even if the news of Gaddafi’s death was several hours old.
At the medal ceremony, the president’s statements were personal and inspiring. Obama was a different man than the one I had seen an hour before. The president in the Rose Garden was tough, emotionless and unwavering, using phrases such as “the dark shadow of tyranny.” The grey hairs peppering the sides of his head seemed to stand out more than I had ever noticed on TV.
The president at the awards event in the East Room was a smiling, joking master of ceremonies, happy to celebrate a few individuals who have worked to improve the nation. Seeing these two “sides” was a juxtaposition I found endearing and very human. At the end of the ceremony, Obama shook hands with recipients’ family members, including a few who were seated immediately in front of my spot in the press area. He was quite literally close enough to touch. (I settled for a picture.)
The day ended with a rush to complete my story by deadline. I finished the day thankful for my good luck, thankful to no longer be sandwiched between the forearms of aggressive photographers but mostly thankful for a certain political reporter willing to help out a pseudo-colleague in need.