No matter what you may think about politics, all the anticipation surrounding a Presidential visit is pretty intense and, I think, cool.
When I got to the base yesterday, I could see immediately that things were different. The guard at the gate had an M-16 in his hand. After signing us in and issuing credentials, soldiers herded all the media to the landing strip, where the Secret Service gave us all a thorough check. Our bodies were scanned by metal detectors, our equipment and bags were checked by a police dog, and then hand checked by agents. The dog lingered a bit near our gear, because my photographer had brought her lunch. But luckily, we all passed.
Then we were herded to the tarmac to wait. The livestock comparisons continued as we were positioned in an area I heard referred to as the “press pen.” The photographers set up on top of a flatbed trailer. I stood on the tarmac below surrounded by temporary metal gates to keep me from going crazy and running across the airfield.
The place was crawling with secret service. The agents looked just like you’d expect, too. Dark suits, ear pieces, always talking into their closed fists. BlackHawk helicopters were constantly circling the skies nearby. My favorite security features were the three snipers on the roof. They kind of freaked me out. I didn’t make any sudden movements. They each were dressed in black SWAT-looking gear, with huge binoculars with which they constantly scanned the horizon. Next to their feet were very large sniper rifles. Yikes. I told my photographer to warn me if any red dots appeared on my forehead. There was something wierd about knowing they could take me out in one easy pull of a trigger from a long distance if I just looked at them funny. One guy especially looked like a real bad ass. I later learned his name was Earl. He was my favorite. You don’t mess with Earl.
A big, black Suburban pulled up full of big guys in more SWAT gear. These guys were huge. A secret service agent came over to brief us all on how everything would happen. He was really nice, and funny. When I talked about shooting something (referring to video), he kindly asked, “Please, call it photographing.” I asked him not to tell the snipers what I’d said.
Then finally, in the distance, you could see a plane coming. The white tarmac was dotted with dark specks that were secret service agents, all looking in different directions. Air Force One touched down smoothly. This is a very very very big plane, and I couldn’t help but be impressed. It’s not every day you get to see in real life the plane that has carried so many of our nation’s world leaders to so many important places to do so many important (though sometimes stupid) things.
The plane’s door swung open, and moments later, the President appeared. I was positioned directly in front of the door, maybe 50 yards back. He gave his standard Presidential wave, and I realized he was waving at us in the “press pen” because there was no one else in our direction. I resisted the impulse to wave back because I knew he was waving for the cameras and not for me. It just seems natural to wave back when someone waves at you, but I didn’t want to look like an idiot.
He marched down the steps, shook the hands of some very excited people, and posed for a photograph. Meanwhile, the press corps had filed out of a back door on Air Force One and were getting the great shots (or should I say photographs?) up-close. Then, G.W. headed toward Marine 1, the helicopter that would take him to Ft. Stewart for his speech. He saluted two very spiffy looking Marines, boarded, then the doors closed. The rotors kicked up a lot of wind and dirt, then the helicopter lifted off the tarmac and he was gone. All of that security for just 10 minutes on the ground.