I stepped through the door, and there was nothing but open space in front of me. After all the gates, security, scanners and questions, I had passed. There was a field of green grass open in front of me.
I lifted my phone to take a picture of the building at the other end of the field. As I did, I noticed a flurry of movement on the roof. I enlarged the photo I’d just taken to take a closer look.
It was a sniper, holding what appeared to be a pair of binoculars in the hand that wasn’t toting a rifle. I looked up from my phone to check the scene in real-time. He was looking at me through the binoculars.
I assumed there were other snipers, whom I couldn’t see, who were training sights on me as well. It occurred to me at that point that I wasn’t exactly sure where I was supposed to go. There was no one to ask.
And I was standing on the front lawn … of the White House.
As is usually the case when I find myself the target of snipers, it was a long and interesting path that had brought me to that spot.
Several weeks earlier, I’d received an email from Clemson’s Sports Information department. They’d added me to their list when I covered them in the Chick fil-A Bowl for CBS a few years earlier. In the intervening time, they’d sent me hundreds of updates on golf, track and the like, all of which got deleted, unread, seconds after arriving in my inbox.
This message, however, made all the months of Olympic sports spam worthwhile. It was titled “visit to White House.” Clemson’s football team would be headed to Washington in June, to be honored for winning the College Football Playoff. Inexplicably, I was invited to join them on the trip.
This seemed odd on a number of levels: I was not, technically, a beat writer for Clemson. Also, I *had* been a beat writer for a team that won a national championship,1 and I hadn’t been invited to cover their trip to the White House, two years earlier.2
One possible explanation was that these two facts were interrelated. Because I didn’t cover Clemson regularly, they didn’t know that giving me access to the White House was a bad idea. Duke basketball’s sports information staff, having gotten to know me over the years, was well aware that I had no business being there.
Another possibility was that this was an example of the Trump Effect. When Duke won, Obama was president. Surely, a large number of media, alumni donors and big-wigs from the school wanted to join the team in meeting POTUS, and I didn’t make the cut. However, under the new administration … let’s just say space was available.
A similar thing happened in December: The item at the top of my mother’s bucket list is to get to attend an inaugural ball. For five elections, my sisters and I have tried to find a way to get her in. We’ve donated. We’ve volunteered for campaigns. We’ve begged.
Finally, in late November, I received notification from one of the dozens of inaugural ball-related mailing lists I’d signed up for. Tickets were available for something called the All American Ball. I contacted my sisters to tell them that we’d finally succeeded—and to get them to chip in on the tickets, since they weren’t cheap—Mom was going to the ball!
When we told her, however, she hemmed and hawed. “Your father won’t want to go with me,” she said. “He isn’t a fan of Trump.” We volunteered a sister to join her on the trip and assured her that there was likely no chance that she’d get to meet POTUS anyway. I mean, tickets weren’t THAT expensive.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe if it were someone else being inaugurated.”
“You don’t understand,” I answered. “If it was someone else getting inaugurated, we wouldn’t have the chance to buy tickets.”
But Mom passed on the chance, as did the top two members of Clemson’s football sports information staff. Everyone else’s political feelings were giving me an opportunity that likely wouldn’t come again very soon.
I replied to the email and said I was in, and my information was sent on to the Secret Service, for security screening.
I assumed that’s where this scheme would die. The Secret Service would see that I’d never written anything about Clemson football, and that I was kind of a crackpot—“Isn’t this the guy who backed out on buying the inaugural ball tickets?” I imagined them asking—and I’d be politely passed over for the trip.
Instead, a week before the big day, Clemson forwarded a message from the White House. Everyone that had passed the initial stages of the process had to submit information for final approval. I filled out the form and heard nothing.
I emailed the White House contact person late Friday, explaining that I would be driving up on Monday, the day of the event, so I really needed to know before I left if I’d been approved … and exactly where I was supposed to go to get access to the ceremony.
I didn’t hear anything back, and late Sunday night, I went to bed, assuming that I’d been eliminated at the last minute.
Monday morning, at about 9:30, I received an email.
“If you are receiving this email, you have been approved to attend the visit of the 2016 NCAA Football National Champions: The Clemson Tigers on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday, June 12, 2017 at 3:00 PM.
That gave me five and a half hours to get ready, drive from Raleigh to D.C. and get through security.
I suited up, cancelled all my plans for the day and headed north. Luckily, traffic was light and I found a place to park a couple blocks from the White House.
The email had explained that I would still need to get a day-pass in order to get through the gates. So I made my way through the maze of fences until I arrived at the Secret Service office at the entrance.
I recognized one Clemson beat writer at the gate. He was on his phone, angrily talking to someone back at his office. Apparently, he wasn’t on the list to get in, and he was trying to get them to help him out.3
I watched the people in front of me present their I.D. The agent behind the glass said something to them, and each of the people responded with a code.
“6281,” said one, and they let him through the door into the scanner room.
“1185,” said the woman right in front of me, and off she went, through the door.
I opened my email from the White House. They hadn’t given me any special code. I opened all the emails from Clemson. No code in any of them, either. My spirits dropped. All along, I’d been waiting for the bottom to fall out of this pipe dream. Clearly, there was some step in the process that I hadn’t been invited to complete. I would be driving home, scolding myself for getting my hopes so high.
It was my turn. I presented my driver’s license4
“And do you have a media credential,” the Secret Service guy asked.
This was it. I knew the process had to have some mechanism for preventing me access. I’d overlooked—or not been told—about the day-pass application process. I was supposed to already have that, and now I’d made this trip in vain.
“I thought I was supposed to get that here,” I said, without much hope.
He shook his head. “No, I mean like an I.D. from your media outlet.”
I had one of those! I handed the lanyard that had my media outlet’s photo I.D. through the little hole in the glass. The only thing that had helped me get access to up until that point was my daughter’s high-school swim meets, on the rare occasions that they charged an entry fee. Now, it might help me get into the White House!
Except it was time for him to ask me for my individual access code—the one I hadn’t been given. I held my breath and tried to come up with something that would soften his heart when I couldn’t give him the number.
“Last four digits of your social security number,” he said.
I knew those! I gave them, and he entered them into the computer. Then he handed me back my lanyard, which he’d wanted so he could attach the day pass with the big V for visitor on the front. He directed me through the doors.
I zipped through the metal detectors and put my day pass on a magnetic scanner pad. I didn’t even have time to worry that it wouldn’t work and I’d be sent home5 before they directed me through the final door, and onto the front lawn.
Which is how I ended up standing there, in the line of fire, waiting to be taken down. I looked down at my chest. I didn’t see a cluster of red dots over my heart, but I assumed that was because the sunlight had washed them out.
I looked to my right and saw a group of canopies, lined up along the fence separating the White House from the old executive office building—the OEOB for anyone who, like me, was a big fan of The West Wing. This was “Pebble Beach,” where all the networks set up so they could do their live shots, with the White House in the background. Clearly, media were allowed on Pebble Beach. I briskly walked to the canopies, photobombing a number of live stand-ups in the process.
From the safety of Pebble Beach, I was able to relax a bit and come up with a game plan. When Clemson is involved in an event, it’s never hard to figure out which way to go. Just follow the orange.
Sure enough, I saw someone wearing an orange bow tie, walking with a woman who had an orange scarf tied around her neck. I stepped in behind them, giving a triumphant look to the men on the roof as I headed in the right direction, decidedly un-shot.
They led me to a door that again took my breath away.
The sign on the door read, “James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.”
This was it. The place where Larry Speakes spoke. The place where Ari Fleischer ducked and wove. Where C.J. Cregg and Abby Whelan6 fictionally sparred with the press.
The Clemson contingent stopped short of the door and made a quick left turn. I stepped forward and saw a portable sign set up in front of the entrance. “Press briefing in progress. Please use rear door.”
There was a press briefing going on RIGHT NOW. Sean Spicer was beyond this wall, at the podium.
I went around the side of the building, away from the White House, and tried the door. It was locked. Then I thought about it. I’d gone to the west side of the building … the side that was closest to the West Wing. If the president were going to take the podium, that would be the closest to his office.
I hadn’t gone to the rear of the building. I’d gone to the front of it.
I quickly race-walked around to the opposite end and went in. Into the Press Briefing Room.
Many people dream of visiting the Oval Office, and getting to see where the decisions were made. I’ve always had a different dream. I never aspired to be in the Room Where It Happens. I wanted to be in the Room Where We Try to Find Out What Happened.
The White House press corps is the top rung on the journalism ladder. About the only other place you can go after that is network news anchor. These are the world’s best reporters, trying to cover the world’s most complex beat. It’s the Major Leagues, except there are 800 people on Major League rosters at any given time. The White House Press Briefing Room is far more exclusive.
I made my way through the door and immediately ran into people. It can’t be avoided. Every inch of the building has been turned into work space. Anyone that’s ever been in the media room at Cameron knows that things can be very crowded. Now, imagine cutting the size of that room in half, and filling it with twice as many people. That’s the Press Briefing Room. People had makeshift desks in hallways, in the dining area, in front of storage closets for photo equipment.
As I wandered through, someone opened the door of a microwave oven, checked the status of his food, and closed the door again to heat it a little longer.
He was making lunch. At his work. This was just another day for him.
I turned a corner, dodging more makeshift desks, and walked into the main briefing area. Spicer was at the podium, and every spot of floor was filled with reporters. People held pads up against walls to find a space to write.
Spicer answered some questions7 on Russia. Then someone asked him about Puerto Rico’s vote to pursue statehood, which had been announced over the weekend.
My mind spun again. This was their job—they monitored the news, looking for interesting stories around the world … then they got to go into the Press Briefing Room and ASK WHAT THE PRESIDENT THOUGHT ABOUT IT.
I’m not ashamed to say I was as star struck as I’ve ever been as a journalist. Not by Spicer, or even by the people currently asking questions. No, it was ALL the people who had asked questions. Cronkite had been here. And Rather. And, up in the front, where I went, long after the briefing was over, but was afraid to sit, Helen Thomas had sat for decades, as UPI’s White House reporter. She always got to ask the first question at presidential news conferences.
I’d watched press briefings as a kid. I didn’t understand all the issues, but I understood the gravity. Now, I was here, in the White House press corps. And, for one day, I was a part of them. Sure, I was only there to cover a football team’s visit—likely the softest, fluffiest photo op of the day, but I was there. And I belonged there.
I had the V badge to prove it.