Photojournalism Feature 
What A Trip With The President Is Really Like
Photos and Text by Dirck Halstead
Last year I offered members of the NPPA discussion list a virtual tour of Air Force One. I get lots of posts asking "what is it really like to cover the White House" and most recently a query on why I said in a recent post that I could only cover the White House for one whole month every three months, saying "nobody could do it more".

As I write this, I am half-dozing in my seat in the rear of Air Force One, as dawn streaks the sky. I am ending a 48-hour trip with the President, having slept about five hours. I decided to keep a little diary of this trip which I will share with you. This is "Life in the Fast Lane", Bill Clinton-style.


7:00 am EDT
I show up at Andrews Air Force Base, 10 miles east of Washington for check-in. The 60 press who will be accompanying the President on a three-day trip to Louisville, Ky, Chicago, Illinois, San Francisco and Los Angeles, California, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin have already been told to prepare for a rough trip. Each day promises to start before dawn and go into late in the evening. On this the first day, we will travel to Louisville for an event in which the President will push for his Patient's Bill Of Rights, then on to Chicago for a fund-raising dinner, then back onto the plane for the four-hour flight to San Francisco. We are due to arrive in San Francisco at midnight, or 3AM Tuesday morning, East Coast time.

8:00 am EDT
By now we were supposed to be in the air, in our chartered Ryan International Airlines 727. However, it turns out that the crew who had flown the plane, which is owned by the Chicago Bulls, had gotten in late the night before, and had over-extended their flying hours. Ryan is sending a second crew in from Chicago, while our plane sits unattended on the tarmac. The President is supposed to be leaving the White House in 15 minutes. The travel office is frantic.

8:45am EDT
We are airborne. Unfortunately so is the President, whose big 747 is catching up with us. A press aide is passing the word that our three day trip has just been collapsed into two. Due to the bombings in Africa, the President wants to back at the White House for meetings on Wednesday morning. We will drop the Milwaukee part of our trip, and fly back to Washington on the red-eye after the conclusion of fund raising events in Los Angeles.

10:25am EDT
As our plane enters the taxi-way at Standiford Field Airport, we see Air Force One touch down on the adjacent runway. Our plane will be moved to a different part of the airport, so there is no way we will be able to cover the arrival. Instead of being taken to the motorcade we are bundled onto buses to be taken directly to the event site at the Commonwealth Convention Center.

10:55am EDT
The press arrives at the event site. U.S.News and World Report photographer Chick Harrity and I join up with our colleague, Newsweek's Wally McNamee and the AP, Reuters, and Agence France Press wire photographers who make up the Air Force One pool. On all Presidential trips, the three wires have regular seats on Air Force One. There is one magazine photographer seat which is switched on a daily rotation between the three newsmagazines. The other two photographers travel on the press charter.

11:00am EDT
The President addresses the Patients Bill Of Rights Event. The press "expanded pool", which consists of the Air Force One pool, plus the other two magazine photographers, and a local newspaper photographer scurry into position in the "buffer zone", the area separating the stage from the audience. The main press riser is 40 feet behind us. There is a huge American flag background behind the President. As the President waits to be introduced, our long lenses go to work. We find that many of the best "character studies" from these events come from watching the President's face in the quieter moments, rather than at times when he is speaking. This particular situation is very good for these kinds of  pictures. I am working my 300mm stabilized Canon lens, with a 1.4x telextender, shooting Fuji 64 tungsten-balanced film at a slow 1/25th of a second, and using a unipod, I burn through nine rolls of film before he gets up to speak. I see that Wally and Chick's cameras are smoking as well. The wire photographers have by now stopped shooting, and are working on their digital images on their laptops, sitting cross-legged on the concrete floor.

12:25am EDT
Chick and I, along with the rest of the press who will be flying on the charter to Chicago board our buses to the airport. Wally and the Air Force One pool get into the motorcade to go with the President to a local hotel for brief private time then address local Democrats in a fund raiser.

1:25pm CDT
2:45pm EDT
Our press charter arrives at O'Hare airport. We are all re-magged and swept by the Secret Service. One agent has decided that the press who have arrived on the charter are a world-class terrorist threat. He constantly is moving us back and forth across the tarmac as we wait in the hot August sun. When one television cameraman decides to seek shelter, and rest under the flatbed that photographer have set up on, he rousts the photographer out, and makes him stand with the rest of the press. This tends to iritate the pool, who start to shout absurd orders back and forth at each other about where they should be allowed to stand. It all goes over the head of the Secret Service agent.

Airforce One touches down at O'Hare. We join the motorcade into Chicago.

We arrive at the Chicago Hilton.  For the next three hours we will hang out in an empty meeting room while the President has private time. Although there is a table full of snacks, coffee and cokes in the room, one of the television cameramen comes up with the idea we should order some Chicago pizza.  Within a half hour, we are wolfing down the pies.

It's heartburn time as we board the motorcade to drive with the President to the Chicago Historical Society for a fund raiser. Upon arrival we are ushered into yet another waiting area, where the advance people have thoughtfully ordered Italian food for us. This is typical on a trip. You go from starving to stuffing, without warning.

The President addresses a UNITY event (a bunch of very fat cat Democrats) in the atrium of the museum The pool covers the event, and discovers that knowingly or not, the advance people have placed Clinton against a wall with stained glass windows that make it look as though he is preaching in a church. We are amused, and take another half dozen rolls of pictures.

Air Force One lifts off from O'Hare. I have switched into the tight pool, replacing Wally, because it will allow me to go direct to the Presidential and tight pool hotel in San Francisco for the next day's events. Shortly after takeoff, the President wanders back into our compartment. He loves to look at the pictures on the wire photographers' laptops. As he leans over the shoulders of Reuters photographer Rick Wilking, I notice a look of panic on Rick's face. There is the photo of Clinton looking like a preacher against the stained glass background. Fortunately, Clifton gets the joke, and laughs, saying "pass the plate" as Rick offers a sigh of relief. The President is now wearing blue jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. I can't help but notice that his waist, according to the Levis tag is now a 36. We all remember when it used to be a lot bigger. The Air Force One stewards have gone to great trouble to order us guess what ?...Chicago pizza.

We arrive at the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco. I am given a key to my room in the new tower section. As I arrive at the elevator bank, I find guests waiting to go their room. The Secret Service has shut down the elevator bank. The guests are told they will have to wait for thirty minutes. This makes me very cranky. Not only don't I want to have wait half an hour, but the idea of being trapped the next morning when I am trying to go down to join the motorcade is more than I want to handle. I go back to the front desk, and demand a room in the old part of the hotel that the President is not staying in. A few minutes later I am in my room checking my email. I have a beer from the minibar and fall into bed, where I toss and turn for about an hour. I have no sooner fallen asleep, when a knock on my door wakes me back up. My bag from the press plane has arrived. I finally pass out about 3am, San Francisco time.


The pool musters at the Fairmont. Wally and Chick join us after taking a taxi from the press corps hotel, The Cliff. They, with the rest of the White House press had arrived in San Francisco about 1:30am.A few minutes later we are back in the motorcade, driving south to San Bruno.

The President addresses a small crowd in a rapidly rising temperature which is quickly moving into the nineties, at an environmental event at the Harry Tracy water filtration plant. If the events the day before had yielded some good pictures, this one is hopeless. It is so bad, it doesn't matter what angle you photograph from...they are all bad. It is a total waste

The President boards the motorcade, and drives back to San Francisco. At the St. Francis, after an hour wait, we are ushered into the event, a fund raiser for Gubernatorial candidate Gray Davis. There is no buffer zone for us to work in, and other than a few snaps taken at 1/8th of a second of the President sitting at a table with the fat cats, the event is a dead loss for photos. The one thing that I had looked forward to on this trip was being able to go out for dem sum at a chinese restaurant in San Francisco after this event. However, the new schedule has the tight pool moving immediately to the airport to take off for LA. I wave good-bye to Wally and Chick as they head for Chinatown, and board the motorcade. They fly to LA later in the afternoon on the press charter, although I won't see them again until we are back in Washington.

We arrive at LAX on Air Force One. For the next eight hours we will shuttle in the motorcade back and forth between Beverly  Hills and Santa Monica as the President appears at fund raising events. We will never see him at any of these locations, which the schedule lists as "Private Residence A, Private Residence B, and Private Residence C" instead, the tight pool is herded into garages, tennis courts, and finally a Hamburger Hamlet to wait while the President racks up the big bucks for the party. I don't even bother to take my cameras out of the van. Instead, I work on this report.


We arrive at LAX and board Airfare One for the flight back to Washington.

We arrive at Andrews. It is a beautiful morning in Washington. The President slowly walks down the ramp, bathed in the golden glow of the rising sun. Now we have to wait for the arrival of the press plane, which I am told is half an hour behind us, to get our bags. Another day of the ongoing drama surrounding the President of the United States is about to begin.

In the 46 hours since we left Washington, we have flown 4,890 miles. That means we were moving at 106 miles per hour, even while I was in my bed at the Fairmont for that short night of sleep. I have shot 23 rolls of film.

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