Behind the scenes: One on one with President Obama
INDIANAPOLIS - Eyewitness News anchor John Stehr recently had the chance to interview President Barack Obama one on one. While WTHR viewers are used to seeing the president on television, scoring a sit-down interview is no simple task. John blogs about his experience here, and you can watch the interview next week on Channel 13 WTHR-TV.
You don't just call up the White House and ask to talk to the president. Getting time with the most important person in the world is a process and, for me, the process began several months ago. I wrote an old-fashioned letter, sent emails, and made phone calls to the people who I thought might be able to help get me in the door. The response was non-committal. They said they would "keep me in mind" if opportunities came up in the future.
That's kind of like applying for a job and being told that they will "keep your resume on file for six months" - not really much of a commitment. So, when the president was scheduled to come to Indiana on April 8th, I asked for a few minutes of his time. Again, I was told that his schedule was too tight, but to "stand by" - perhaps an opportunity might be coming soon.
It turns out that the opportunity came very soon, with a phone call late in the day on April 14th. The White House communications office asked if I could be there on Monday, details to follow. I agreed immediately and waited for those details to come.
Around mid-day Friday, I got the details. There would be three other reporters on the list with me Each of us would get seven minutes with the president. The others came from Denver, Raleigh, and Dallas. The White House left it up to us to work out "pool" arrangements, meaning we had to decide amongst ourselves how we would set up for the interview and share the material when each of us had taken our turn. After getting together on a conference call, and deciding how we would work out all of the technical issues, we made logistical plans.
Photojournalist John Whalen and I would fly in Sunday night, get together with the other crews at the White House Monday morning, talk to the president in the afternoon and head back home to Indiana Monday night.
Since I have been in broadcasting for 35 years, I know what seven minutes really is. In an interview setting, it's not much, especially with a politician. If you ask a question that is too broad in scope, they will monopolize the rest of the time, going off on "talking points" and - before you know it - you're completely out of time. I knew that winging it would not be an option here -- that the questions had to be sharpened and specific. I called in a few people that I trust -- my boss, WTHR News Director Keith Connors, Democratic strategist Robin Winston, Republican analyst Peter Rusthoven, and our political producer Theresa Wells-Ditton. An hour with them helped me winnow down ideas to ten specific questions, all of them Indiana-centric.
My idea was that the administration speaks to national and international issues every day, but having the president's attention for seven minutes to focus on things Hoosiers want to hear is an opportunity that should not be squandered discussing administration views on the United Nations or water rights in the western states. We decided on four major topics: High gas prices, unemployment, politics, and Super Bowl, all with an Indiana slant.
John and I met for breakfast early in the morning - a beautiful morning in D.C. I had already done about a five-mile walk to and from the new World War II memorial on the National Mall, and was ready to go. Our "hurry up and wait" had begun. We checked in at the White House at about 10:30, leaving about two and a half hours of down time before we could meet up with the rest of the group and set the room for interviews with the president.
On the bright side, we did get ourselves and our equipment through security and we were given badges making us part of the White House Press Corps for the day.
WHITE HOUSE PRESS CORPS
Being part of the White House Press Corps is not really as glamorous as it sounds. The briefing room is extremely small -- too small for the number of people who work in it. It has seven rows of theatre-style seats, seven seats across. The carpets are frayed, the walls are scuffed, and the trash cans are overflowing with discarded fast food bags. Most of the people hanging out are technicians, prepared to send their networks a live feed as necessary 24 hours a day. The correspondents only show up when real news is happening -- preferring to work out of their network bureaus nearby, or off of their laptop at a coffee shop.
But, even when you are a temporary member of the corps, you have the same rights and access as everyone else. On this day, the president was holding a Rose Garden ceremony to award the "Commander-in-Chief" trophy to the Air Force Academy for having the top college football team among the service academies. The Corps was invited to attend. No one jumped up, except for the technicians whose job it is to be there in case something tragic (or embarrassing) happens to the president. If he swallows a fly, commits a gaffe, trips and falls, they want to record it. Other than that, the presentation of the trophy has little interest to most Americans (and just about all of the White House Press Corps).
Since I am one to take advantage of opportunities, I wandered out to the Rose Garden for the ceremony. It was a beautiful, sunny day. The Obama children's swing set glistened in the sunshine, adjacent to the Rose Garden. The US Air Force theme blared from the speakers. A group of sharp young men in uniform marched out from the west wing. An announcer spoke: "Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States...." The music changed to "Hail to the Chief". The President made a few comments about the team, accepted a football and a jersey, and thanked everyone for coming. The whole thing took about 15 minutes.
THE MAP ROOM
While I was taking in the atmosphere in the Rose Garden, our pooled technicians were setting up for our interviews with the president in the Map Room. For a history geek like me, this is a significant spot. It is a relatively small room in the basement of the White House residence where President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spread out maps of Europe used to plan the Allied efforts against Germany in World War II. Some of the maps still hang on the wall. The room is adjacent to the Diplomatic Room, which is where the president enters the White House after landing on the South Lawn in his Marine One Helicopter. We are off the public tour, and in a spot where few people are ever able to go (including most of the permanent White House Press Corps).
THE GROUND RULES
The White House is all about rules. While there were no restrictions on what we could ask the president, there was a list of restrictions on how we could do it. No still photos of anything in the White House, no shooting pictures of the President as he walks into room, no taking more than 7 minutes (a staffer went through the time cues he would use). You go in, sit down, start the interview, then leave -- all under the watchful eye of about 15 secret service members and staff members crowded into the small room.
Once the room was set, several Secret Service agents made one last sweep of the equipment. They stationed themselves in the halls, in nearby rooms, and at the entry doors. Another agent blocked the door to the south lawn with one of the Secret Service's "crash wagons" -- a full-sized, fully-armored black SUV. Another agent stepped into the room where the reporters were waiting. No small talk. No smiles. Clearly, the president was on his way.
He took his position, leaving the four of us waiting to interview him in the next room, to be summoned one by one. Denver. Raleigh. Dallas. Indianapolis. I lobbied to go last, figuring that that could buy me a little extra time for my interview.
Since I was kept away, I had no way of knowing how the previous interviews had gone, although I did hear later that the president scolded the reporter from Dallas for trying to cut off his answers to ask new questions. Despite the tension that must have caused, the president had shaken it off before I got in the room.
When you walk into such a situation, you know that the president has been briefed about you and what you are likely to ask him. As I was in the holding room attaching my microphone, my colleague John Whalen walked into the interview area to take up his camera. The president called out to him with a cheery, "Hello John", leaving him in an awkward spot -- go shake hands with Mr. Obama or demur and go to the camera. John decided to fess up and told the president that he was not the "John" that would be asking the questions, but the John who would be shooting the interview.
When it was my turn, I turned the corner to walk into the room and saw him sitting in a chair -- the most powerful person in the world, waiting for me to come and sit across from him. Clearly, this is a unique situation for a reporter, but to call it "nerve-wracking" would not be accurate.
Consider that we see Barack Obama daily. He is on television, in the newspaper, and on the cover of news magazines. We know his mannerisms, his speech patterns, even what he is likely to say to certain questions. I felt calm and comfortable from the moment I sat down.
I started the interview with 11 questions, and seven minutes to ask them. I ended up asking seven questions in an interview that lasted almost 11 minutes. It seems that following a producers time cues is optional if you are the President. He kept talking past the allotted time and I kept talking with him. In the process, I learned a little bit about what he thinks of Governor Mitch Daniels as a possible presidential candidate (someone whom he takes seriously) and how he feels about Senator Dick Lugar (whom he called a "person of good will"). He is also as anxious as Hoosiers to see Super Bowl XLVI played in Indianapolis in February 2012.
Within a minute after the interview was over, the president got up and moved out of the room, with a swarm of Secret Service agents and staffers trailing behind. My day had reached its peak. For him, it was just another thing on the to-do list of the leader of the free world. Who knows what he still had to accomplish before taking to the road to sell his tax and deficit reduction plan.
In many ways, this process has re-affirmed to me the notion that I have led a charmed life. Before April 18, I had shaken the hand of every President since Johnson -- and, interviewed four of them (Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, and Clinton during their campaigns for the White House; Carter after he left office). The chance to interview a sitting President is something that eluded me in my long career. Did my time with President Obama change the world? No, but I hope it helps give some insight to his views on Hoosiers, the 2012 campaign, and the Super Bowl we plan to hold in Indianapolis next year.
You can see the complete, unedited version of the interview here after May 2nd.