It is the largest room in the White House, the site where presidents who died in office lay in repose, where seven weddings and eight funerals have taken place, but the east Room is probably best known to Americans, these days, as the place where President Barack Obama announced the killing of Osama bin Laden. There is a lot of fascinating history about the East Room that you can read at Wikipedia, but we’re more concerned with what it’s like to actually work there, to live history on the clock.
Here’s one thing I found particularly interesting, though: the guy who helped rebuild the White House (including the East Room) after it burned in 1814 was named Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and it was his son after whom the town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania was named. Think about that next time you crack open an ice-cold Rolling Rock. Come to think of it, an ice-cold beer is probably one of the first things you think of working in the East Room, as it is perpetually hotter and dustier than a mummy’s jockstrap. It looks like it was decorated by the love child of Liberace and Goldmember.
My first event in the East Room was a big one: President Obama’s first presidential press conference. At the time, I was writing for AOL’s PoliticsDaily, and had just finished covering the 2008 presidential campaign, the Democratic National Convention in Denver, and the President’s inauguration. Shortly after the inauguration, I got an invitation to apply for credentials to the first press conference, so that’s what I did. It was supposed to be a one-off, but I was hooked after that, and decided, then and there, that I wanted to keep covering the White House. One of the ways I’ve managed to stay as independent as I have, over the years, is that I’ve always gotten my own credentials, never relying on any outlet for access, but it all came about pretty much by accident.
When arranging big press events, organizers will schedule a time for reporters to show up for the event, but also an earlier “pre-set” time for outlets to set up cameras and other equipment. Even though I only had my Handicam and a cellphone, I always showed up for pre-set because it afforded me the chance to get the lay of the land, maybe stake out a good spot, and indulge my fascination for behind-the-scenes process and imagery. A few hours before that press conference, I took this quick clip of my very first steps through the East Room. You’ll see what I mean about the decor.
The chairs, you’ll notice, all had numbered notecards on them, so I had no need to stake out a good spot, but I hadn’t gotten my assigned seat number yet, so I didn’t know where I’d end up. I actually didn’t even know how to find out which number was mine, but instead of doing that, I left the grounds to have a cigarette (I didn’t know you could smoke at the White House), and wound up in a 45-minute line to get back in. That’s where I met Anamarie Cox and New York Times correspondent Helene Cooper, and annoyed them for an hour. Along the way, I found out that I had to go to the lower press office to get my seat assignment, and acted like I knew where that was until I managed to follow someone there. Then, we all gathered to be led up to the East Room, which is when I turned my camera on.
Watching the clip now, it vaguely resembles that long tracking shot in Goodfellas, but at the time, it felt more like that moment in Gladiator, right before the doors to the arena opened and the carnage began. What you’ll see here is the route we took from just outside the press room (the awning you see right at the beginning is the perfect smoking spot outside the kitchen that I described here), up the stairs, and into the East Room. That entrance is the same one that was used by the infamous fence-jumper. As we walk in, we can see the famous hallway that President Obama strolled down to announce the bin Laden raid. As I’m trying to find my seat, you get a really good sense of the atmosphere of the room. Then, I put the camera in my pocket thinking I’d turned it off, but then I got a neat shot of the podium, and of Ed Henry and Major Garrett doing pre-presser standups:
Finally, here’s a little more pregame, featuring Henry, Garrett, Chuck Todd, Jake Tapper, and a great shot of soon-to-be Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore:
It was hot, but those gold-painted chairs were pretty comfortable, so the East Room didn’t seem like such a bad place to work. What I didn’t realize was that at most East Room events, the chairs are for someone else to sit in, while the media jostles for position in a sliver of the room’s perimeter.
You’re led in about half an hour before the event, then you wait for the President to be at least a half an hour late, and then you have to wait around until everyone clears out at the end. There used to be an enormous rolled-up carpet against the east wall that you could sit on until someone yelled at you, but other than that, it’s a couple of hours of hot, dry standing up with a hundred other reporters and crew. Since most East Room events are live-streamed by the White House, I don’t cover them much anymore, but next time I do, I will bring you all along.
It also means I have tons of East Room footage that I’ve never used. I always shoot at these things, but unless someone trips or barfs, there’s not much use for the video. However, I will leave you with one more clip, from August 10, 2010. The New Orleans Saints were at the White House so President Obama could congratulate them on their Super Bowl visit. As usual, we were all led in way early, and this time, they actually had the Saints players rehearse their entrance and arrangement on the riser, then leave again. It took forever. You can get an extremely rare glimpse of that here, but I will leave you with two minutes of the volumes of footage I shot that day. This is an arm’s length view of President Obama’s entrance into the East Room that day, right out of Dead Bin Laden Lane and up to the podium: