Covering the Clinton Mideast
Trip from Outside the Bubble
A Photographer's Diary
by Ruth Fremson

The Border between Israel and Palestine Territory, December 14, 1998-

The black-bereted Palestinian policeman held out his hand and the taxi slowed to a halt. He motioned for us to turn around. We could not go any further and yet, I wasn't even close to the Shawa Center in Gaza City where I was to cover President Clinton's speech to the Palestinian National Council.

"I'm with the Associated Press...photographer...covering President Clinton's speech." I tried flashing my press credentials, hoping he understood some English. The driver tried in Arabic. Finally, after several minutes of negotiating we made it to the next street corner where we went through the same hoops. And again at the next corner. And again, and again, and again. You see, I'm not in "The Bubble" anymore.

The Bubble.

That traveling road show, that flying circus, the self-contained world, immune to borders, customs, security and credential considerations that the rest of the journalism community wrestles with regularly.

I burst from The Bubble earlier this fall, leaving photo-ops, White House parties, motorcades, and endless references to Monica behind, in favor of the Middle East conflict, transferring to the AP's Jerusalem bureau. And yet, two months later I found myself covering Clinton again--this time from the outside, looking in. The Bubble had come to Israel.
Ben Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv, December 12,1998-

When Air Force One touched down at Ben Gurion Airport I was in place, and had been for some time, after enduring a seemingly endless Israeli security check of my equipment. Instead of leaving my comfortable first class seat in the press cabin and positioning myself under the airplane's wing to photograph Clinton disembarking, I was on a press riser more than a football field away. When he finally came down the steps he was a speck in my frame, like a figure in a "Where's Waldo."

As the welcoming ceremony wound down I stayed behind, watching the press van, Wire One, drive off with the motorcade, knowing well how disoriented its occupants were, after their long flight. I filed photos by our traveling photographer, Scott Applewhite, from my position, using a laptop and digital cell phone. And when the Israeli police made us leave the tarmac, I continued to file them from the taxi on the way back to Jerusalem. No police escort for me.
Jerusalem, December 13,1998-

Sunday, the minutes turned into hours as I waited first for Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to finish a breakfast meeting, then under a cold gray sky at Mount Herzl Cemetery, for the President to pay his respects at slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's grave. During the wait I caught up with my former colleagues who wanted to know what it was like to cover the Middle East conflict. The first thing that came to mind was that people didn't throw stones or shoot rubber coated bullets in The Bubble. I wore suits, not combat boots and a helmet, while on White House duty. On Clinton trips here and elsewhere, the only demonstrations we would glimpse were occasional groups of people lining roads with signs as we whizzed by in the motorcade through one town or another. The cars usually moved too fast for us to read many of them. The fleeting images all melted together especially on one of Clinton's fundraising trips where we would zigzag cross country, making four or five stops in different cities in 48 hours.

President Clinton, the First Lady and Leah Rabin - photo by Ruth Fremson / AP
Finally, after several hours the Clintons arrived with Rabin's widow, Leah, and the President placed a stone from the Wye River on his tombstone. After hours of waiting the actual event was over in moments. I was reminded how those long hours of waiting for a few moments of action could make me stir crazy.

But, late that Sunday night, trudging the half mile through no-man's-land between the Israeli and Palestinian checkpoints at the Erez crossing, where Israel ends and Gaza begins, carrying my camera gear, an overnight bag and a ladder, I yearned for the White House Travel Office that would have had my baggage waiting for me in my hotel room when I arrived. Because I wasn't on the White House manifest to take the 15 minute chopper ride to Gaza the next morning, I had to travel down the night before to ensure that I would get through.
Gaza City, December 15,1998-

On Monday, after showing my press credentials to countless Palestinian policemen, I was in position on a press riser at the back of the auditorium inside the Shawa Center. I chuckled as the press pool tumbled in, jockeying for the same position on a small riser, looking a little bleary-eyed. I empathized with the exhaustion that sets in on the second day of a foreign trip, after you've been going full speed for hours on end. On these trips the scenery starts to become one big blur. And yet, you have the privilege of being inside presidential palaces and receiving special tours. You are privy to seeing world leaders up close, and you are able to witness and record history.

While the experience is priceless, the glamorous veneer is thin. The inside of a motorcade van is still the inside of a van, whether in Moscow, Jerusalem, Tokyo, or Buenos Aires. In most cases, you don't have time to explore the exotic place you find yourself in. If you are lucky you get an hour or two during a trip to venture out for a local meal or to sightsee. A friend once asked me what Korea was like and I had to struggle to remember if I had even been there. Then I remembered, that yes, we were in Korea for a few hours on our way to Tokyo. It was where my colleagues had played a joke on me, stuffing my pockets and camera bag full of silverware from the travel pool's "holding room" buffet, only to be found by Korean security who pulled it out--staring at me strangely--just before a press conference. Tokyo was where we hadn't eaten a decent meal all day--we were "holding" in a small van outside the Imperial Palace while Clinton dined royally inside--when we were offered box lunches consisting of four potato chips, half an olive and white bread with paper thin slices of cucumber inside. St. Petersburg was where we stayed in a fabulously elegant and luxurious old hotel, but were only in our rooms for two hours before the next pool call. Barely long enough to shower or break into the mini-bar.

Palestinian children - photo by Ruth Fremson / API would never trade the experience of covering the White House, photographing the President so often that I instinctively knew when he would gesture with his right index finger or with his fist during a speech, or throw back his head and laugh out loud. I wouldn't trade getting to know the workings of the administration, and the people who labor so hard to keep it running like a well-oiled machine. But while inside, the world outside is just that--outside. As the White House bubble floated from one place to another during its three-day stay in Israel and the Palestinian areas, I was able, instead, to walk the streets, smell the food sold from pushcarts, listen to the laughter of children as they raised their posters welcoming President Clinton to Gaza, and hear the drums of the marching band. I could speak to the people and understand, from a different perspective, the situations the President goes to and what it really means to the people who are not on the inside.

Ruth Fremson is an Associated Press photographer based in Jerusalem. She
can be reached at

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