Notes from the President's visit

Saturday, February 4, 2006

Last week we got word that President Bush was slated to speak in Nashville on Wednesday, the day following his State of the Union address. I volunteered to cover it.

This isn't the first presidential event I've attended; I was present for his address to the American Legion convention before the 2004 election and I can't remember how many times I covered Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton presidency, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect.

The key to covering these things is to get there as early as you can so you don't have to fight over a good spot in the press pool with all the other media outlets. This has been a problem in the past, but this time, not so much.

I made the trek to the Opry House in good time, arriving some 15 minutes before the doors were to be opened. However, there was already a long line of folks in suits, sharp outfits and uniforms from every branch of the armed services.

The media credentials table was right up front, however. Upon obtaining my coveted White House Press Pool pass, the lot of us, including video personnel from CNN and ABC News, were directed back to the rear of the line, which extended all the way back to the Opry Mills parking lot.

But the line moved swiftly once the Secret Service finished their sweep of the building, and we were soon emptying our pockets and being scanned by hard-eyed, yet polite members of the president's protection detail. I noted a small bin of forbidden items that had been collected, nail files, small pocket knives and such.

After the USSS made sure my camera was actually a camera (we are pointing these things at the president, after all), we were quickly escorted to the press pool; a three level area set up about 60 feet from the stage of the Grand Old Opry.

But with more than two hours until Bush's arrival, what were we in the press and the gathering crowd to do? Get treated to a mini-concert, featuring some of the biggest names in country music, such as the Oak Ridge Boys, the Gatlin Brothers, Ricky Skaggs, Lee Greenwood and others. I'm not a big country music fan, but the performances were pretty entertaining.

Meanwhile, the room slowly filled with men and women in uniform, boy scouts and local GOP dignitaries. Video crews from local stations filed in and began setting up and I saw many of the usual media suspects, photographers and writers from the Tennessean, AP photo hounds who were uploading shots directly to the wire services on the spot thanks to wireless Internet provided, not to mention White House TV.

When Greenwood took the stage, several of us in the press pool looked at each other knowingly -- as we all guessed there could only be one song he would sing: "God Bless the USA." Greenwood himself joked that he has sung the tune for three different presidents.

But soon the video projectors up in the balcony section started showing live shots of Air Force One landing at Barry Field, so we knew the main event was at hand. It was at this point that a Secret Service agent walked up to the lectern and attached the Seal of the President to it.

The room fell silent at once. Nearly 5,000 people in the room and you could literally hear a pin drop.

There was no request for the crowd to settle down, they just did so without being asked.

But someone must have noticed what I, an AP photographer and several others noted; the presidential seal was slightly off center. When another agent straightened it, there was a small amount of applause.

As for the speech itself, it was mostly a recap of the previous night's address before the nation, but much more informal. The president always appears much more at ease with this format, and seems to connect better with his audience than he does when he is reading off a TelePrompTer.

Overall, I must have fired off over 240 digital shots during the event, trying to get just the right image for the front page. Some of the pictures caught Bush in some fairly humorous poses and facial expressions that just beg to be paired with a satirical caption.

Getting out of the event proved to be harder that getting in. Construction continues on Briley Parkway and it took 45 minutes to drive 5.5 miles.

An extra treat was logging in to WRKN's blog at nashvilleistalking.com later that day and seeing a picture of myself standing in the press pool. I guess I was fair game like everyone else.

A final note: The day after the event, I received a blistering phone call from an obvious Bush opponent who was totally enraged that my story on Thursday did not call the crowd that attended the speech "invited" like the Chicago Tribune apparently did, which he referred to consistently.

The call occurred just moments after my story was posted in the Internet. He constantly asked who made the decision to invite "these handpicked people" to the event and he clearly wanted to give them a piece of his mind. However, since he had me on the phone, I would do quite nicely.

I tried to explain that inviting your supporters is a common practice in political circles and pointed out that Al Gore had bused in Democrats from all over the state the last time he visited Shelbyville for his "Family BB-Q."

This was a mistake, because he would have none of that and became even more angry. It seems it is A-OK for his favorite politicians to do it, but not his ideological opponents. What followed was a nearly 10 minute rant about how unfair it was that the event was not "open to the public" and how the president is a "coward" for not inviting him to the party. He also bellowed at great length about the time Dick Cheney refused to acknowledge him during some political event years ago.

Trying to explain the tight security did not seem to quiet his rage either. Apparently, according to the gentleman, I'm not that great of a reporter since his own personal biases were not included in the story I wrote.

Nope, no bias there. I save that for the opinion page, where I can openly talk about the man who was furious with me because he wasn't given a chance to hurl extreme verbal abuse at the president of the United States.