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Exclusively in step with Obama

WASHINGTON — Maybe when he got up Wednesday morning, President Obama was thinking the same thing I was: I'm sure it will all work out.

One way that Washington reporters manage to keep track of the blizzard of news coming from the White House each day is that we take turns shadowing the president.

Those of us in the White House in-town travel pool, as it's called, serve on a rotating basis, spending the day with the president whenever he's in town to chronicle everything we can — what he says, what he does, who he's with, what he's wearing, what he eats, what time he arrives and leaves each event.

If he eats, we better be able to tell our colleagues what he ate, and whether there was mustard on it.

By luck of the draw, the St. Petersburg Times drew Wednesday, Obama's first full day as president. And though I've pulled pool duty on presidential campaigns, this would be my very first day as the eyes and ears for the (quite aggressive) White House press corps.

No pressure or anything.

• • •

There is, of course, a system in place to make sure the pool reporters know where to go and when to be there, to generally help ensure that you, in the vernacular of Washington reporters, "give good pool."

The problem Wednesday was that Obama's new press team was almost as clueless as I was, or at least as discombobulated. President Bush was in charge of the White House until noon Tuesday, so Obama's press team literally didn't have time to set up phones and e-mail accounts or release a schedule.

All I knew was this: Be at the White House at 8:30 a.m., and plan to cover President Obama's first stop of the day, the 10 a.m. National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral. What came after, we'd find out later.

By 9 a.m., I was packed with several other reporters and photographers, including journalists from NPR and Bloomberg, in a black van on the south side of the White House, waiting for POTUS (President of the United States) and the first lady to get into their armored Cadillac limousine.

We roared through the West Gate into downtown Washington. Being in the pool means you're in the presidential motorcade, and the best thing about that is there's never any traffic.

The trip from the White House to the Cathedral normally would take at least half an hour. We make it in nine minutes. We are hustled to a balcony, out of the way but with a good view.

Afterward, I join the Bloomberg and NPR reporters trying to spot VIPs leaving the cathedral so we can add them to our pool reports: Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. PBS anchor Jim Lehrer. Former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee. That new senator from Illinois. The new national security adviser; does he still go by general?

• • •

At 1:18 p.m., Obama, wearing a dark suit and blue tie, with a U.S. flag pin on his left lapel, enters a briefing room in the Old Executive Office Building, Vice President Joe Biden behind him. Everyone stands.

"Please be seated," Obama says. "I'm still getting used to that whole thing, 'Please be seated.' "

The crowd chuckles.

He signs executive orders concerning lobbying and government transparency. Each order comes with its own pen. "These are nice pens," Obama remarks. When he's finished, he asks Biden to swear in about 30 senior staffers.

Biden asks for a copy of the oath, saying he wasn't sure he could remember it all.

"My memory's not as good as Justice Roberts," he says.

It is a sharp dig at the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who bungled Obama's oath of office at the inauguration Tuesday, and a collective "ooooh" rises from the room.

Are vice presidents supposed to say that?

I don't know, but in the report it goes.

Along with a note about the high shine on Biden's brown lace-ups, how many peaks showed in his white pocket square, how many stanzas were sung of "Holy, Holy, Holy," whether the president placed his hand over his heart as he sang the national anthem and virtually every word spoken by or to the president that my digital recorder could pick up.

Along the way I realized something rather paradoxical: sometimes being close to the president doesn't mean that you'll witness the most important news.

This is why, for example, I spend several minutes in the company of Tracie Jones of Bessemer, Ala., who was one of 200 people who had won a ticket to an "open house" with President and Mrs. Obama. But when the commander-in-chief is meeting with his military advisers on what to do in Iraq, I'm transcribing how Jones gushingly told Obama he was "beautiful," before quickly correcting herself, "I mean, first lady, you're beautiful!"

• • •

Ah, the glamor. As I type, I am sitting in a cramped chair by the door of the James S. Brady press Briefing Room in the West Wing.

Every time the door opens, which is about every five seconds, a blast of freezing air hits me. It is 6:30 p.m., and I have eaten only pretzels since 7 a.m. I have filed six pool reports. In five minutes, I am told, we will load into the vans bound for a ball in honor of Obama's campaign, transition and inaugural staff. (That will be my seventh report.)

Five minutes have turned into an hour and half when the pool reporters are ushered suddenly into the Map Room.

Chief Justice John Roberts is there to re-administer the oath he flubbed the day before.

"We decided that because it was so much fun...," Obama jokes, sitting on a couch.

Roberts dons his black robe and asks: "Are you ready to take the oath?"

"I am, and we're going to do it very slowly," Obama replies.

The oath takes 25 seconds.

Roberts smiles. "Congratulations, again."

Obama says, "Thank you, sir."

Smattering of applause.

I take back what I said before. That was the news of the day. I was 10 feet away.

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

Exclusively in step with Obama 01/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 23, 2009 7:10am]
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