Behind the Lens: Pooling with the president

When Journal-World photo chief Mike Yoder told me that we had been offered a position in President Barack Obama’s press pool during his Jan. 22 visit to Lawrence, I believe I channeled Keanu Reeves when I responded, “Whooooooooaaaaa.” My mouth may have also stayed open a few elongated seconds but you’ll have to ask Mike.

On paper, what that meant was that I would be traveling with the president’s motorcade from the morning hours at the Holiday Inn Lawrence all the way through his departure from Forbes Field following the speech.

Part of preparing for every assignment is thinking about the possibilities of what might happen so as not to be caught off guard when something actually does. With this one I may have let my mind wander as I found myself entertaining some pretty elaborate ideas. Some of these notions included President Obama and his staff laughing over breakfast at Ladybird Diner, jogging on the Kansas River trail in the morning, drinking a John Brown Ale from Free State Brewing Company and then shooting three-pointers with Frank Mason inside the Fieldhouse.

Eventually I checked myself with some reality that this was preposterous. “Duh,” I thought. “Of course he wouldn’t drink the beer before shooting three-pointers because nobody’s shot is going to be on after drinking one of those.” Obviously, the beer would come later.

I arrived at the hotel around 7 a.m. to meet up with the press pool. After passing through the metal detectors and being patted down by Secret Service, I first noticed chief White House photographer Pete Souza, a Kansas State graduate, sitting in the lobby. I introduced myself and asked him if there was anything I needed to know or if he had any advice for a first-timer like myself. He told me we were making a stop but he couldn’t tell me what it was. His advice: “Just chill.” This is something that had not occurred to me up until this point.

From there I was taken to a lounge where my gear was again examined by Secret Service and a German shepherd, which I’m all but certain had a name like Nero or Nitro.

When the inspection was over and it was time to load up, we were hurried to a cargo van parked within the president’s motorcade, and I was directed to my assigned seat in the first row, behind the driver. We waited in the van for about 40 minutes until Secret Servicemen began shuffling around the president’s limousine, and within another minute, the 12 vehicles in the motorcade along with about 20 Highway Patrol escorts on motorcycles were in motion and heading to downtown Lawrence.

The streets were aligned with supporters nearly the entire route. When it was clear that the procession was slowing outside Plymouth Congregational Church, the photographer nearest the van’s double doors had already opened them and was preparing to exit within seconds. At this point, I no longer felt like a teenager who was trying to blend in backstage at a concert and realized I had to get out and start moving quickly.

When we arrived in the preschool classroom, a presidential aide defined an area adjacent to the children and their desks and asked members of the press to make room for each other. When the president entered the classroom at 10:15 a.m., it was the first time that I had actually seen him that day.

During the experience, which lasted only 3 minutes, 40 seconds, the president made chit-chat with the children as he meandered around the room, often getting down to their level while sparking conversation about their books. The mood was light, he was animated and I sensed that he really enjoyed being around those 15 or so little bodies who didn’t want anything from him and really only knew him as a guy on TV.

I imagine for the president and for the press that cover him regularly that truly candid interactions like this are difficult to come by because of his prominence, and I feel lucky to have witnessed one.

— Staff photographer Nick Krug can be reached at 832-6353. Follow him at