Monday, October 24, 2016

That One Time at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

As  noted in my previous post, recent travels included time in D.C. for an impromptu red carpet event featuring hundreds of Team USA athletes.

The same trek to our nation's capital yielded other fun surprises, including a last-minute return visit to The White House!

My first entry to the Executive Mansion was 20 years ago, on Halloween morning 1996. After driving to Washington on Oct. 30 (following a month of house-sitting in Manhattan), I woke up at a nearby D.C. youth hostel and hiked over to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. 

In those days the public could still line up for free tours of the residence, and I was on site early as there were afternoon plans to also visit Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. I vividly recall entering the East Wing, spotting a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture one of the first rooms, and learning President Clinton was not home that day as he was out campaigning for reelection (the goal of my drive back to Georgia was to be home in time to vote the following Tuesday). 

Though I had visited the north side of The White House (along the wrought iron fence) many times on D.C. travels since that 1996 tour, there had not been another opportunity to enter the mansion in a post-9/11 world. But the invitation to report from the Team USA Awards at Georgetown also included a credential request for the athletes' White House visit, and with nothing to lose I applied for both events. 

As of 10 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 28, I still had no clearance to visit The White House as an Olympic blogger.

Around midnight, however, official word arrived by email that due to rain, the event was moved indoors and space was limited -- my name did not make the cut (Bummer!). 

Again with nothing to lose, I sent an overnight email asking to please be kept on the list in case other reporters did not show up.

You can imagine my surprise and delight to wake up Thursday morning to find another White House missive with "you're in" and instructions on how and when to check-in ... in about 30 minutes!

A quick shower and an Uber ride later, I approached the northwest corner of the mansion site and got buzzed in at the same security station as Charles Grodin in "Dave."

From this point, there was a bit of hurry-up-and-wait, and a few starts and stops, in advance of the welcome ceremony for Team USA. Just because reporters and photographers were "in" did not guarantee there was room for everyone in the East Room, which was already filling up with more than 500 Olympians and Paralympians, Secret Service personnel and other White House staff. Our waiting area turned out to be the Press Briefing Room in the West Wing.

For any public relations professional with a sense of history, a visit to the James Brady Press Briefing Room -- named for Ronald Reagan's press secretary to took a bullet during an assassination attempt and later lobbied for gun control standards -- is a trek to hallowed ground. I was in awe by the actual smaller-than-anticipated size of the room, which features fewer than 50 seats between the podium and a bank of network TV cameras and control panels. We patiently waited for updates on access to the main event.

With about 15 minutes to the posted start time, I decided to wait outside with a person who turned out to be a press contact for one of the national sports governing bodies. He had a text chain going with a Team USA press contact on the inside of the mansion, and we both learned the person sent to accompany him into the East Room was the woman with whom I'd corresponded overnight to beg for wait-list status.

Making good on my promise of a blog pin, his escort agreed to take me inside as well, and the three of us eventually got into the main building via the Ground Floor Corridor where I definitely saw the bust of Abraham Lincoln and possibly saw a portrait of a former first lady who may soon be the 45th president.

Up some marble stairs and a few more steps, we arrived at the East Room, packed wall-to-wall with star athletes as a massive portrait of Martha Washington smiled on the scene. I was assigned to a center, floor position in the back-of-room photo area and got acquainted with my neighbors each with cameras in hand.

The waiting game that ensued was great fun in that several dozen Olympians -- many donning their medals or new Olympic rings received the previous evening -- milled about and proved very willing to stop and chat with the reporters and photographers.

Many shared excitement from their few seconds with the president, first lady and vice president earlier that morning. Others seemed to enjoy the mini-reunion with fellow Olympians met on the Road To Rio or only the previous evening.

Everyone was smiling, and then without musical fanfare of "Hail to the Chief" or "Summon The Heroes" accompaniment, President Obama finally arrived about 20 minutes after his scheduled time.

A sea of mobile phones rose overhead as most of the Olympians snapped their own versions of the event. Trying to tune in to Obama's remarks, I also jockeyed for better photo stances until finally easing back to just take in the scene.

Obama spoke for almost 15 minutes, starting with some by-the-numbers details.

"The story of this year's Team USA is all about firsts," he said. "Our Olympians came in first so many times more than anybody else. Not to brag, but 46 golds ... made the U.S. the first country in 40 years to top the medal chart in every category. And it was a feat built one unprecedented accomplishment at a time."

The president proceeded to introduce several individual and team athletes by name, including Simone Biles, Claressa Shields, Kristen Armstrong, Simone Manuel, Kim Rhode, Allyson Felix, Katie Ledecky and Ibtihaj Muhammad.

"We had more women competing in these Games than any nation ever," said Obama. "Our women alone won more golds than most countries did. Our women's 61 medals -- most ever by any women's team -- breaking the record set by, of course, Team USA four years ago."

Obama also joked about Michael Phelps breaking a 2,000 year record set in ancient Olympia before taking a more serious tone to introduce Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

"Their powerful silent protest in the 1968 Games was controversial, but it woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those that followed," said the president, who also mentioned the family members of several black Olympians of 1936 who were also in attendance.

As soon as the Obamas and Joe Biden waved goodbye, the press corps attendees were ushered to the north portico steps to await Ledecky, Felix and a handful of other Olympians chosen to share notes on their experiences in The White House.

It was after the in-mansion experience that the most unexpected elements of the visit occurred. As it turned out, our media group was encouraged to stick around for the day's White House Press Briefing already in progress.

I made my way back to the James Brady Press Room and enjoyed use of one of the seats for the final 30 minutes of Q&A led by Press Secretary Josh Earnest. Fascinating!

For a peek at how one blogger handled himself during this briefing, scroll over to the 57:30 mark of this White House video (my seat was behind the woman asking the question).

One may only imagine how I might have handled things had my day on site included last week's visit by Bill Murray!

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver


olmofamily said...

I am over the moon for you Nick- what an amazing experience...especially hearing such a moving speech. Thanks for sharing it- the kids loved seeing the pics.

Nicholas Wolaver said...

Thanks, Meg. Stay tuned for an upcoming post (I visited the Brooklyn Museum on Saturday, 20 years or so since you and I spent some time there). :-)

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