On the bus: riding with the White House press pool

Obama’s visit gives local scribes a behind-the-scenes look at covering the commander-in-chief.

Inside the big yellow bus during a long "hold," two reporters file stories while most of the pool soaks in the glorious summer day. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The arrival of a visiting president on Martha’s Vineyard is an exciting prospect for a reporter at a local Island weekly. It provides the opportunity to join some of the nation’s top journalists and photographers and to ride in the motorcade with the President of the United States — POTUS in reporter parlance. And there’s always the possibility, however remote, that a local reporter will get the chance to ask the most powerful man in the world a probing question — a question that could possibly give the president pause for reflection.

But past experience covering President Obama as a member of the White House pool has been akin to press purgatory — long hours sitting in vans and buses, and maybe, just maybe, getting a telescopic view of the president’s facility with an 8 iron. This vacation, the president has been even more cloistered than usual, and a Sasquatch sighting on Farm Neck seems much more likely than any contact with the commander-in-chief.

With a mandate to get something out of the money The Times ponied up for the costs to get this local reporter in the White House pool, I decided to interview some of these top-shelf journos, to get a window into the life with the president when something actually happens, to get their impressions of our Island, and to find out what movies they show on Air Force One.

A summer day in the pool

The White House pool reporters were welcoming and collegial when a Times reporter and photographer joined their coterie. It was not long before a photographer from a major wire service shared a moving story about a picture she took last winter that went viral and eventually reunited a mentally ill man with his searching family. When The Times asked her to tell her heartwarming tale on the record so Islanders could share in it too, her tone took a decidedly sour turn. “Aw man, I thought we were just hanging out,” she said, uttering the last words she would speak to The Times for the rest of the 13-hour day on the bus.

Journalists, it turns out, do not like to be interviewed. This irony stems mainly from corporate policy. Given the amount of print journalists who are blogging for less than minimum wage, they can’t be blamed for protecting their livelihood.

But over the course of a long day spent in cramped vans and pacing around holding sites, some reporters and photographers, who asked to remain nameless, eventually shared stories about life on the Obama beat. While President Obama sometimes visits with pool reporters on long flights abroad, the conversations tend to be short and measured, as opposed to the gregarious President Clinton, who loved talking politics so much that one now-retired reporter feigned sleep when he saw the president coming to the back of the plane.

Neither the pool reporters nor the president get frequent flier miles on “Air Force One” and the movie “Air Force One” has not been shown on Air Force One. Additionally, the M&M’s and even the tiny tabasco bottles have “Air Force One” stamped on them, and make great gifts at the holidays.

On that day we spent five hours holding at the end of the entrance to the Vineyard Golf Club off the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. The Times took an informal poll to see if these journalists, who are some of the best in the world at unearthing the truth, still saw the Island as an “affluent, exclusive enclave,” as so many of them describe it, after spending some time here. The unanimous response was, “Yes.” They were informed that locals bristle at these descriptions, that the average wage on the Island is 70 percent of the state average, that there’s a critical shortage of affordable housing, and that many Islanders are barely making ends meet.

“Really? Where are they?” one reporter asked genuinely. People who see the Vineyard from the point of view of the president can’t be expected to see the full spectrum of Vineyard life, especially when they spend long days wedged in vans and pacing around holding sites.

Hurry up and wait

After the president finished his round of golf, the “Men in Black” convoy sped up Island, and the press promptly went into hold mode again — this time at the Flanders property, a 65-acre former estate of a prosperous whaling captain who was coincidentally also named Flanders. The photographers took photos of horses from every possible angle, while some Secret Service huntsmen looked longingly at the abundant deer and turkey frolicking in the verdant meadows.

After POTUS got cleaned up for dinner, the convoy, this time including a bomb squad truck manned by men with permanent scowls, sped back down Island. After a circuitous route to Oak Bluffs, the president, the first lady, aka FLOTUS, and a few select friends had dinner at The Sweet Life, where the Obamas have often dined.

While the president ate, the pool was escorted to Giordano’s via Kennebec Ave., which required an explanation of the long line at Back Door Donuts and the wonder of a warm apple fritter. The pool members, who have dined at restaurants all over the world, were unanimous in their praise for Gio’s cuisine, especially the meatball parmesan pizza and the lobster ravioli.

The day ended with the pool gathering with hundreds of locals outside The Sweet Life. Just before POTUS and FLOTUS emerged, the bomb squad truck, per security protocol, pulled in front of the crowd gathered on a spit of land between Pequot Ave. and Massasoit Ave. POTUS and FLOTUS left the restaurant to applause, flashing cell phone cameras and about 100 people chanting “Move that truck! Move that truck!”

The press was warned ahead of time that we had to dash to our vans as soon as POTUS got into his car, or risk missing the motorcade. Despite being impaled by a charging soundman brandishing his boom mike like a lance, this reporter managed to make it back to the van in time.

The day ended with the press getting one fleeting glimpse of POTUS and FLOTUS. From a journalistic standpoint, it was a dud. But maybe, just maybe, a reporter will think twice before describing the Vineyard as a playground for the rich and famous.