Monday, April 6, 2015

Agents, Guns and Carrots

"Excuse me!" comes a shout from the back of the large Bluebird bus, the kind of bus you rode to fifth grade, or to summer camp, "Is there a reason we are stopping?!" the woman with the "Decision 2012" baseball cap bellows to an unusual man with a clipboard and a mustache you would find only on "The Simpson's" Ned Flanders, or in a novelty bin at costume shop.
First on the bus headed to watch Air Force One arrive at HAFB

The mustached man answers gently, "we're waiting for a security escort."  The woman who is a member of the national media pool who regularly follows the president when he travels, loudly pounds on the screen of her smart phone, and jabbers at some nameless producer back in New York, "It's ridiculous, we're just sitting here just waiting, I don't know when we are getting out of here!"  

I thought her loud protests were odd, the bus had only stopped for a couple of minutes when the she started to squirm restlessly.  Granted we did have to get off a previous bus because the military driver couldn't get it to move.  My guess is, she's been traveling with President Obama for some time, and is likely growing exhausted with security, badges, Secret Service agents with their shortly cropped hair gazing sternly at her as they pass a grey handheld metal detector across her body every couple of days.

The president, for the first time since he was elected came to Utah last week, and with him lumbered the most awe-inspiring cavalcade of trucks, buses, guns, agents, cars, black suits, shaved heads, and pre-screened, photo opportunities I'd ever seen in my 20 years as a reporter.  

In Salt Lake City, the Sheraton Downtown had become a fortress.  It was surrounded on all four sides, by dozens of buses, and dump trucks, the building was swarming with men with short hair, and black suits and uniformed members of the military, some of them, with machine guns drawn, were jogging here and there around the unspectacular 6 story hotel.  The White House and a hotel spokesperson hilariously wouldn't confirm if the president was staying at the unassuming hotel.  I had an image of the manager of the Sheraton, standing at the front counter, while he talks to a reporter on the phone, "I cannot confirm or deny if the President is staying here," as he's being frisked by a Secret Service agent while bomb sniffing dogs tugged at his pant leg,.

My badge
On an uncomfortably chilly evening, I stand in line with as many as 50 other journalists, as a Secret Service agent shuffles through a  pile of media badges, asking curtly, "Name," I glance over and see a black and tan German Shepard jutting his nose into my satchel, which I'd placed in a line of backpacks, camera bags, and purses, piled on after the other in the patchy grass and dirt.  The dog's nose burrowing deep into my business made me nervous, not because I had anything to hide, at least I don't think I do, but because I had a Tupperware container filled with pepperoni and cheese.  I was already hungry, and I could imagine the overworked K-9 gobbling up my dinner leaving me with nothing but a Ziploc filled with baby carrots.  The dog and
its handler finally moved on from my bag, and I exhaled with relief as another agent goosed me with a grey wand.  It bleeped, and wailed while the serious looking officer floated the device over my hips and across my outstretched arms.  

As Utah Dignitaries streamed onto Hill Air Force Base to meet the President, I noticed 2 distinct moods coming from the guests, the Democrats, like Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker appeared giddy, while the Republicans, including Governor Gary Herbert, Sen. Orrin Hatch and Congressman Rob Bishop looked like football fans being forced to attend the opera.

When Air Force One rolls giantly down the tarmac, it is impossible not to be impressed, the 4,000 square foot flying fortress has two kitchens large enough to feed 100 people.  It also has a complete operating room to take care of any medical emergency.

The president hopped off the roll-away staircase and gave the Governor an enthusiastic handshake, then a few minutes later was working the rope line shaking hands with soldiers and base personnel who'd been invited to meet him.  As the President slowly reached for outstretched hands, his presidential limo, which is actually a sturdy black, muscular SUV, rolls slowly beside him, mirroring his movements, with a Secret Service agent perched on the open back passenger door, both hands clutching it, ready to slam it closed as soon as the president steps inside. I was busy reporting the unfolding visit live, so I didn't get to take much else in, but I did notice, the governor marching grimly behind the President, not used to playing second fiddle and waiting for the cheers and smiles to simmer down so Obama and the leader of the state could finally step inside the sleek black car.
Air Force 1 arrives at HAFB

As the massive motorcade, some 20 vehicles long, whisked the Presidential entourage to an "undisclosed" hotel in Salt Lake City, Congressman Bishop heads back to his car. "Congressman!" a gaggle of reporters try to wave him over to the bank of awaiting cameras.  Bishop, with his distinctive shock of white hair, seems reluctant to talk about his brief visit with the President, but we persuade him to talk to us anyway.  "Supposedly I'm on a round table with the president in the morning," the congressman tossed nonchalantly, "Do I think he'll listen to me? No? but anytime the president comes to your state, no matter who it is, Utah will show him a good time."  Bishop begins to walk away, "What do you think the traffic will be like in Salt Lake?" I ask only half serious, he smiles, "I don't know, I'm going the other way, so that's your problem,"  he jokes.

The next day its more security, and a scheduled speech by the President, With a flurry a freshly waxed SUV pulls up urgently among the Solar panels, and a few minutes later, under the eye of soldiers dressed in black cargo pants and holding sniper rifles, and scopes, the President casually sauntered to the podium, gives an unremarkable, 7-minute speech, shakes a few hands, and just like that, is gone.
Me: Near, but not on AF1

The storm is over, so I slump into a white folding chair anchored in dirt, and reach into my satchel to find that bag of baby carrots I hand't eaten the day before. Just then Congressman Bishop walks past, and I hold out my baggie filled with tiny carrots. He peeks in, selects his favorite and plucks it out. As he eyes it, I hold up a container of hummus and offer it to him, "No thanks, just the one," he squints, instantly regretting the refusal, I suspect.  "Well," I joked, "you can't take gifts anyway." He smiles, "do I have to give this back?" He grins, and tosses the carrot in his mouth as he walks away.  I thought to myself, "what would have happened had I offered the President a carrot?"  My guess is, it would have included the Secret Service, a black and tan German Shepard, and maybe another hand held metal detector.

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