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MEMBERS ONLY: A President Walks Into a Helicopter....

Go behind the scenes with Banter White House correspondent Tommy Christopher as he dodges RPG fire to cover President Obama's departure on Marine One, gets shut down by Russian agents, and much, much more.
POTUS Marine One

Happy Monday, Banterers, and welcome to this week's Members Only column, in which you will learn, for better or worse, what it's like to cover the president's departure from the White House on Marine One, plus go behind the scenes of a Thom Hartmann The Big Picture Rumble segment, meet blogger and Twitter-famous conservative Caleb Howe, and find out what went into the White House reporting you saw on these pages last week.

Although there was no briefing scheduled for Wednesday, I still had to rush down from New Jersey because I wanted to take you, loyal members, along for the experience of filming the president's departure from the White House, en route to Miami. In the first part of this week's exclusive video diary, I take you from curbside on G street all the way to the South Lawn. Before we get to the video, a few things to look for.

For authenticity's sake, I have included everything except about 30 minutes of waiting around, so you can really get an idea of what covering this kind of event is like. As we enter the White House grounds, you will see a group of people talking to TV cameras in front of the West Wing (at the "stakeout location." or just "at stakeout," as we would actually say it). They are immigration advocates who had just met with President Obama in the Roosevelt Room, a meeting which was originally scheduled to be held in the Oval Office.

Next, we go into the press area break room, where we all gather to go out to the South Lawn. We hear one guy who isn't even being filmed warning how he doesn't want to be filmed. I was right behind that same guy when we got outside, and he again told me he didn't want to be in the shot he already wasn't in, and was generally a jerkoff to me for the rest of the day. This is an aberration for these crew guys, who are mostly just terrific, but some of whom are grumpy assholes. Somewhere, I have footage of a guy busting  balls while I tried to interview David Corn in the briefing room a few years ago, and I'm wondering if it's the same guy. Tune in next week.

Also worth noting is the reason there are always so many cameras at departures and arrivals, when a single pool camera would suffice. It's the same shot every time, and unless he's coming out of the residence, the President is never close enough to shout a question. A few years ago, I wondered this out loud, and several White House reporters, cameramen, and one Secret Service agent concurred that the main reason is that everyone wants to make sure they're there in case the chopper crashes, and to a lesser extent, if someone falls down or hits their head on the way in. The best thin I ever got was a Marine guard having trouble locking the hatch to Marine One. Here's our trip to the South Lawn, which I filmed on Wednesday just for you:

After the chopper took off, it was back to the briefing room, where I set up in the Tribune seat to get some work done, and spent a good part of the day getting valuable background reporting from a variety of sources. As I sat in the briefing room working on my computer, some crew guys were setting up for a taped interview, and it was a weird setup that had lights, cameras, and stools right in the rows, and taking up many of the seats. Even though I knew I wasn't in the shot, I did ask if I was in the way, figuring if there was a better seat, they'd direct me to it. The guy from earlier just gave a brusque "Yes, you are!"

This is the kind of thing that the rare conflict with one of the crew guys is always about, sharing the space in the briefing room. Some of the guys get it in their heads that they own the whole joint, and no one else has a real job to do. It is rare. Most of them are really eager to help, and will turn on all the TV lights just so you can take a picture, for example, or watch your tea kettle so no one steals the water you just boiled again. Apparently, if you leave a cup with tea bags in it next to a kettle, people will just take all the water you just boiled, and not even refill an/or restart it.

I didn't move right away, but when I noticed the Tribune desk was open, I snagged it and moved all of my stuff over there. In the next part of this week's video diary, we get to see the view from that desk, as the press gaggle from Air Force one is piped over the PA system, and we all sit around listening to Josh Earnest like it's a fireside chat.

Eventually, I moved again, to Helen Thomas' old desk. When Helen was still with us, she used to let me use her desk even when she was around. She used to keep a box of Lipton tea bags in her desk, which was handy, but now I have to bring my own. They mostly drink coffee, or espresso from what has to be the ED-209 of espresso machines, which was gifted to us by Tom Hanks. This is actually the second machine he gave us; the first one now sits, unused, atop the vending machines. If there's ever tea, it's some horrible herbal variety.

After filing a couple of stories and making plans for the evening, I headed over to the RT America studios, where I brought you all along for a behind-the-scenes look at The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann. There's some green room chatter with The Daily Caller's Scott Greer, plus some neat on-set footage that I've cut together with the actual segment to give you a look at how the on-camera and off-camera flow goes. I've done these "Rumble" segments before, but I was surprised at how rumble-y this one got, so I was hoping it wasn't too over-the-top.

Some of this footage kinda had to be smuggled out because, after I filmed my walk to the studio, one of the Russia Today people told Thom's producers they were "nervous" about me filming in their newsroom. I explained that it was a walk-through, and that I wasn't filming the newsroom at all. Then, word got back to me that they didn't want me filming at all, anywhere, but that I could take stills, at which point I switched to my phone to take "stills." So all the on-set stuff is actually a series of stills (30 per second) and audio, not video, okay?

The other panelist was Stacy Washington, better known as "Stacy On The Right," a radio host and blogger with Project 21. She was really nice, and we shared a soft drink afterward as she waited for her ride to show up. When I went to follow her on Twitter, though, I discovered that I had her blocked for some reason. Awkward. I think that really shows the difference between the way people interact on social media, rather than in person. She could not have been nicer or more tolerant of my relentlessly obnoxious liberalism.

After the show, I met up with my best friend Caleb Howe, a conservative blogger who was in town for CPAC. The story of our friendship is too long to tell right here, but it goes back to the 2008 DNC in Denver. Even though we talk on the phone just about every day, we've only hung out in person a handful of times, so it was a real treat to get to have dinner with him. I took you all along for our dinner at TGI Friday's, where another friend briefly joined us.

Much of what I did on Thursday wound up on these pages already, but I also took you guys along for my early getaway from DC. Since the briefing finished relatively early and I had a great parking spot (half a block from the White House, on G Street), I decided to bounce right away, get myself through Baltimore before rush hour, and file from a rest stop. Usually, I don't leave town until 7 or 7:30, which gets me home around midnight, but by splitting up the travel with no traffic, I got home before nine.

Here's the rest of this week's video diary, followed by two of the many photos I took last week:

My plan, going forward, is to park the too-many pictures I take each week over at my personal blog, but here are two that I wanted to share here. The first is of President Obama walking to Marine One, but it looks like a Secret Service guy giving a dirty look to the tiny man who has just stepped off of his shoulder:


"I just created a tiny President Obama WITH MY MIND!"

And here's a shot I took from inside the Palm Room that looks like I'm being beckoned into the afterworld, which is how it feels covering the White House sometimes. Hope you enjoyed this week's look under the big top, and we'll see you next week.

palm room

"Walk to the light, Carol-Anne!"