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A Day At The White House 2: Behind-the-Scenes Boogaloo

Tommy Christopher takes Banter readers inside the White House without jumping the fence, plus gives them a front row seat for the great Secret Service Cookout of 2014, and a behind-the-scenes look at doing a cable news hit.

No matter where I go, dear Banter readers, you are always close to my heart, and that includes the White House. If you missed our last field trip to the People's House, feel free to check it out now, because how else are you supposed to follow the plot of the sequel?

My week began in much the same way, with me taking one for our team of readers by attending another canned event, this one featuring Vice President Joe Biden announcing job grant awards. This was actually the first VP event I've covered in nearly six years at the White House, so I figured there might actually be more of an opportunity to move around, get some good shots, and maybe catch Biden interacting with the crowd afterward. As it turned out, though, the veep's press staff are even more controlling than POTUS', keeping what little press was there confined to the back of the room (while the official White House videographers and photographers had free rein) and hustling Biden right offstage at the end.

This is a poor impulse on the part of both press shops. The most powerful weapon that this White House possesses is the personal likability of its two top dogs. Whatever the risks for gaffes and gotchas may be, they are far outweighed by the benefits of letting Biden be Biden, and Obama be Obama.

Thanks to the (30 minutes) late-starting and long-running veep event, we were late to the White House daily briefing, which, itself, started late. The Secret Service was the hot topic, with Josh Earnest continuing to profess the president's confidence in Director Julia Pierson, but shortly after the briefing, Washington Post broke the story of her resignation, causing an uproar throughout the press rooms. The attention being paid to this story is entirely appropriate, but within the White House press and crew, there's an added dimension that isn't really visible to the public, which is a strong protective impulse around the president, the building, and its other occupants, which include us. With each new detail, there was a palpable sense of anger, mixed with characteristically cynical humor. Prior to the WaPo story, there was strong consensus that the White House would do their best to protect Pierson's job, but immediately thereafter, she was reclassified as toast.

For me, it was the fact that the flaw in the fence that allowed all of these jumpers to get over in the first place had still not been fixed, along with the fact that the Secret Service appears to have lied even to the White House. Instead of fixing the fence, the Secret Service put up what the press is calling a "smaller fence," but which is really just the same barricades they used during the government shutdown. Even at 46 years old with a bum ticker, I could still get over that fence before anyone noticed.

As an added precaution, the Secret Service also instituted Reporter Jail, where they make reporters who don't have a hard pass, but who have been cleared by a Secret Service background check, wait for an escort from the press office. They're not supposed to do that, as long as we have our outlet's press credential, but any time they want to be hard-ons, that's what they do.

Way to keep the First Family safe from pre-cleared middle-aged heart patients.

After the briefing, and filing my stories for the day, we headed over to shoot a segment for The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann. I go on his show pretty much whenever I'm in town, and often only after a few days of little sleep and strenuous work have left me at death's door. Once, I shot a segment for Hartmann with a near-fatal case of appendicitis. Yes, I am a mess, but much better these days. Thom and his wife, Louise, are two of the best people I know, and I feel awful for having worried them so much on so many occasions. Anyway, in this week's movie, you'll get a glimpse of what it's like to do a cable hit.

On Tuesday, I tried out a new routine, parking near Lafayette Park and setting up shop at Cosi on 17th, but man, the WiFi there is teh suck. Along the way, I shot a few seconds of another trademark D.C. sight, the Motorcade Traffic Jam. Turns out it was for India's prime minister, so I guess it was a ModiCade™. After a few hours of work using my own WiFi, I made the executive decision to take us all over to the Hill to sample the Grilled Pierson. We got a front row seat, but immediately got hassled by Congressional Gallery staff for videotaping, so mostly, we got stills. My favorite is this shot of Man Posing For Unfinished Rodin Sculpture "The Fotog":


The hearing itself featured mostly-bipartisan clobbering of Pierson, but there were two thing that struck me. One was Director Pierson's Bill Bill Lumbergh-esque bureaucratic demeanor in the face of even the most humiliating admissions, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz's (R-Utah) insane advocacy for shooting every fence-jumper on sight.

After the hearing, we rushed back up to the White House for the daily briefing, and after a brief stint in Reporter Jail, made it in on time. You'll see a few new sights in the White House, including the swimming pool, the press offices, and the spiffy desk I got to commandeer. It's actually Helen Thomas' old desk, and it's rare to get one that's not being bogarted by someone who got there early and just left their crap on it.

Here, then, is our latest trip around D.C. I hope you enjoy it.