When a Journalist Baby-sits the President
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes even big jobs make you feel small.
By Dena Levitz
Dena Levitz is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist.
“Would you be interested in this gig?” asked my friend Kathleen nonchalantly. “It’s basically baby-sitting the president.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. The president president? Since I entered the workforce at 16, I’d had my share of ragtag jobs: summer camps, smoothie shops, kids’ birthday parties. But this one sounded like kind of a big deal. Plus, at age 27, I was looking for serious journalistic opportunities. The White House? Clearly this was it.
Bloomberg’s White House editors called me in. The interview was me at one end of a long table looking at half a dozen solemn faces. They scrutinized every internship I’d had, every story I’d chased, and combed my résumé with unprecedented detail. When they subjected me to an FBI background check and called all three references, I realized this was real. Then, I got the news: I’d be coming on as an in-town pool stringer! I’d be covering President Barack Obama.
Once we got there, we sat. We read. We saw agents with earpieces pace around until Obama came back to his vehicle.
A week later, my first day. My instructions were to show up at the Secret Service post near Lafayette Park, head into the White House press compound, and wait. Seemed easy enough. The only problem was Secret Service agents wouldn’t let me in without an escort. Apparently they were as confused by my role as I was. An hour later — and after considerable negotiation and pleading — I was in.
But now what was I supposed to do? As it turned out, the president’s plan, without any official duties, was to head to a Montgomery County, Maryland, community center to watch his daughter’s basketball game. At the command of press handlers, a smattering of reporters and photographers piled into two vans at the back of the presidential motorcade. Once we got there, we sat. We read. We saw agents with earpieces pace around until Obama came back to his vehicle. Then it was back to the White House to wait some more — until we were dismissed for the day.
And that’s how things went most weekends for the next 28 months.
If something historic happened, I would write about it and let the world know. Only mostly it didn’t.
It’s a hard concept to explain, being part of the presidential press pool — especially as a member of the in-town press group, which never partakes in Obama’s out-of-town activities. Most news organizations simply rotate staff in on the weekends to cover “pool duty.” But Bloomberg had dedicated backup, at the ready when its regular White House staff was off duty. That’s really what I was — a pinch hitter praying for action.
The cramped, leaky press office was my holding area, but it felt palatial because there was such an importance to being there. If something historic happened, I would write about it and let the world know. Only mostly it didn’t.
The only similar experience I’d ever had was working as a “night cops reporter” at the Augusta Chronicle. Between 3 p.m. and midnight, I’d sit next to a police scanner, waiting for a signal “2-I” (accident with injuries) or possible shootings to come across the airwaves. When an exhilarating news story surfaced, I felt like Superman dispatched to a fiery building. I was needed. My reporter training was useful. But with my White House assignment, I could count my big moments on one hand.
There was the weekend that began with a basketball outing and ended with a shooting that severely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others. In that case, I was able to help gather quotes from a rapidly assembled press conference as the nation mourned the tragedy. Another weekend, I was on hand at the AIPAC conference for pivotal discussions about the Middle East’s future. That assignment came with a rare byline, and I felt like I was actually there as a journalist, not a robotic note-taker.
Who’s in President Obama’s regular golf foursome? Anyone?
Perhaps my favorite historic event was watching the Obamas and the Kings get a first peek at the Martin Luther King Jr. monument on the morning of the official 2011 unveiling. This was before any drama over the monument’s wording. The atmosphere was festive, and the families glanced up at the statue with happiness and reverence. Aretha Franklin belted “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and I had behind-the-scenes photos to show friends. Being there was special.
In between, I learned tidbits that probably wouldn’t win me any trivia contest (Who’s in President Obama’s regular golf foursome? Anyone?).
But most evenings I spent standing on the South Lawn, shielding myself from the massive breeze that passes overhead with the president’s helicopter. Once it takes off safely in the air or lands securely on the manicured lawn, we needed to know: Who was with him? What time did it happen? Not once did I see Obama take a question or do anything besides salute and walk into his residence. Yet that rare chance that something off-script might happen is what kept us there, what kept us following his every move.
There’s an assumption of glamour that comes with covering the president. However, I learned that so much of pool duty is simply just being there, being led around without knowing where White House staffers were even taking us. The president’s schedule revolves around patterns and a whir of behind-the-scenes planning. It’s highly controlled; I just wasn’t the one in control.
For more than two years I was a cog in the White House wheel. Eventually, it was time to hang up my press pass and stop pestering the Secret Service. Even today, when I catch the commander in chief coming and going on TV, I find myself hoping he’ll break out of his requisite wave, waiting for something off-script to happen. Maybe this week, on Martha’s Vineyard.
If not for me, for his new baby sitter. One who at least scored the vacation beat.
- Dena Levitz, Dena Levitz writes for CityLab by Atlantic Media, the Washington Post, PBS Mediashift and Bloomberg News. As a fellow for 1776’s Challenge Cup, she’s currently circling the globe, telling the stories of startups trying to revolutionize health, education and energy. Follow Dena Levitz on TwitterContact Dena Levitz