WASHINGTON, D.C. (WDRB) -- As a sportswriter, trips to the White House are rare. In fact, I had made exactly zero in a 20-year career. Until today.
I'd been to the nation's capital many times, even toured some of its historic sites, been to its museums. But this was a different experience entirely.
It's rare that anyone enters the White House through the front door. Today we did.
Covering the White House, for those who don't do it regularly, requires security screening, submitting of information, and a great deal of waiting. In fact, at WDRB, we weren't sure we were going until the day before Tuesday's event to honor the University of Louisville NCAA basketball champions.
As you might expect -- or maybe you might not -- everyone I spoke with at the White House and Capitol was courteous and responsive. Steve Andress and I left Louisville at 7:30 Tuesday morning, landed in Baltimore before 9 and were on a train to D.C. by 9:45.
We went to the Capitol to pick up credentials we wouldn't use, though we didn't know that at the time. Entering a small security station marked "appointment desk," we underwent the first of a couple of screenings on the day. We piled into an elevator whose capacity was four people. We walked back the hallowed Senate Gallery hallway, where no photography was allowed and conversation was to be kept at a minimum. We didn't look inside. After getting our credentials, we were off in a taxi to the White House, where we found out that the pre-event set-up, scheduled for noon, had been moved up to 11 a.m. We weren't the only ones caught off guard.
It didn't much matter to us. We were on the White House grounds. In fact, we were in the James Brady Briefing Room, where the daily news briefings are given.
When it comes to covering the White House, as a television entity, anything you need in terms of logistical support is supposed to come from your national network. For WDRB, that means dealing with FOX News, though our station's ties to FOX News are tenuous at best. We coordinate at least as much with CNN as with FOX, and for that reason I left it in Steve Andress' hands how much we'd lean on any Fox folks in D.C.
For others, the strategy varied. WLKY had Hearst Communications and CBS, WAVE had NBC and so on. Steve and I also had another logistical challenge -- we were filing for a 4 p.m. newscast, as well as one at 6:30 and another at 10.
At one point, Fred Cowgill of WLKY, Adam Lefkoe of WHAS, Kent Taylor of WAVE and I were standing outside the briefing room, talking about our various challenges of the day -- and about how compact everything really is at the White House. A taxi had let Taylor out on the wrong side of the Capitol building and he was sweating. We were all sweating. And we were all very much aware of how cool an opportunity this was. We couldn't help being tourists for a few minutes, taking pictures behind the briefing platform. You never know if you'll ever get back.
I sat down in the briefing room, doubtless in someone's seat, and took in some of what was being discussed. I was there to cover a basketball team's visit. But there was real work being done, questions and answers that would drive at least part of the day's news cycle for some outlets. White House press secretary Jay Carney conducted a Q&A with reporters on topics from immigration to energy to Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
To the left of the White House as you look out toward Pennsylvania Avenue, the national TV networks are set up permanently, camera shots framed, tents erected, and ready to go at a moment's notice should news crop up. We found a gap along the row and taped a "stand-up" segment for the 4 o'clock news. Momentarily, we lost the local contingent, so, mindful of the unannounced schedule change earlier in the day, Steve wandered up to the door to ask where we were to gather to go in. This, in turn, drew the instruction to go back down to the briefing room, where an escort was waiting to say, "You need to have an escort wherever you go. I just got an urgent message."
One aspect of life in television is the equipment. Steve Andress was weighed down with a tripod, and needing to get into the room quickly. So I took the camera, along with my own backpack, as we assembled to enter the White House, and the East Room. ESPN's Andy Katz took one look at me and said, "You're truly a one-man band now, huh?" I told him there's no way I could do it. The guy with the hustle was up ahead. Outside the front doors, we could hear music from the reception, with political dignitaries and other invited guests. We were rushed along a back wall of the reception hall and into the East room, where the camera operators jockeyed for position in back and the rest of the media filled the room along the left hand side. Roped off, in the middle of the room, were dozens of chairs. But they were not for media. As the guests walked in, some I recognized, Jon Blue from Louisville, various government dignitaries or U of L staffers, a few students or former students. There was a definite pro-Louisville feel to the event. Howard Fineman of The Huffington Post, an alum of U of L's law school and a member of Kentucky's Journalism Hall of Fame, was behind me, but like me, on the media side of the ropes, not the guest side. I found myself wondering where all of these people had come from. Some were just present because they'd gotten an audience with the president, others were there through local political ties.
There are two sides to the coin in covering the White House. You see things most people don't see. But you are not on the inside of the ropes. You're jockeying to do your job, and the people in charge do the best they can to help, but it's a job. I got a spot beside Dan Dry, a legendary photographer who has settled with Power Creative in Louisville. U of L asked him to come along to photograph the trip. As such, he's the one media person in Louisville who got to see the trip from the inside. C.L. Brown from The Courier-Journal was in the same area. He's on vacation, but got credentialed because he did not want to miss this trip. Or the opportunity to be there.
After the president and Rick Pitino were finished talking, there was more staging. We left the East room and gathered outside a basement door, waiting for an escort to take us to an interview room for brief remarks with Pitino and Luke Hancock. The group was told to stay tight, and we did. But it wasn't easy. Down a hallway. Through some dividers. Along the walls I began to notice large oil paintings of the First Ladies. Barbara Bush. Hillary Clinton. Laura Bush. They put the First Ladies in a basement? Then came large frames with candid portraits of Presidents, Obama, Clinton, Bush, Reagan. This opened into a larger room with presidential portraits, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson. These were things, all of them, you wanted to stop and look at for a moment. But there was no time. The interview room awaited, and soon Pitino was in front of the cameras, telling his story.
For a brief moment in the foyer outside that room, media and team mingled. I shook hands with Fred Hina, with Pitino's executive assistant Jordan Sucher, said a word to Pitino, spoke for a moment to Tim Henderson, but we were being summoned to get back to our spots.
Steve and I headed from there to shoot more stand-ups. It's an art I've yet to perfect. I've found I have a new respect for people who can come onto ESPN and offer insightful commentary moments after taking something in. We taped our spots, then Steve set about the task of editing everything together.
My plan was to get to the Capitol to spend some more time with players and coaches, but time became a concern. We weren't finished with our shots until 3:20. The Capitol presentation began at 3:30. I wasn't going to make it. I emailed Sen. McConnell's office to let them know, and sat down to write my story.
I tried, as best I could, to recreate the day a little bit. I wanted, with my column, to put a period on the sentence. That's what the day was. It was the epilogue to the University of Louisville's championship season. As I wrote, an email pinged through from Kate Ottaviano, assistant editor at St. Martin's Press, letting us know that galley copies of Pitino's book were going to be shipped and in our hands by Wednesday morning. They'll have to be returned on Saturday. I found myself wondering if they have room for another page or two of pictures, or, for that matter, for another couple of pages of Pitino's thoughts on the trip to the White House. It's not a book about the championship. But the championship is inescapable. The championship is the conclusion. It is the result of many of the things Pitino talks about in the book. The championship is weaved through nearly every chapter. I wrote Kate back and told her I'd get right on it. Which means the rest of the week will be busy.
As for my story, and the day, it was a definite closing of the book on the championship season. Luke Hancock, who would leave the White House and go home to his mother, where they would get ready for a memorial service for his late father, said he would be putting away his championship ring now.
I wrote, and like much of the championship run, what I wound up writing did not satisfy me. There just wasn't enough time with the players involved, not enough input from them. A national championship is too big to cover very well. I got better access to Louisville this season than Kentucky last season, but in any event, it wasn't knock-it-out-of-the-park stuff. That's not a complaint. They have everyone in the world trying to cover them. It's just a statement.
I posted my column. You can read it here. Steve sent in the video, and I took one of the files and transmitted it using my phone's hotspot. The White House has a public Internet feed, but it isn't as fast as whatever NSA is using.
While the last of the stuff was sending, I saw Steve wandering around the briefing room, looking into corners. He was looking for our camera. In and around the White House, cameras are left everywhere. They're sitting on tripods and on tables. There are cabinets full of them. WDRB's was missing, and Steve was perplexed. He had sat ours down on a table, and now it was gone, and no one could find it anywhere. It was a $15,000 digital HD camera. Things like that don't just disappear. We were starting to get up against it. Our flight, the flight from which I am writing this story, was to leave Baltimore at 8:20. Our plan had been to take a train back to Baltimore's airport, but losing the camera delayed us. When Steve finally went back to the White House media office, they said that a panicked C-SPAN producer had called them and told them they had our camera, and were on the way back to the briefing room.
C-SPAN? Of all places to lift a camera (accidentally). I thought they only shot with one camera anyway, and they take the wrong one? It was an honest mistake. But it was one that caused a bit of a scramble. After checking Google Maps on the iPhone (what did we do before those?) Steve decided we could cab it back to Baltimore. I got $100 out of the ATM and we were off, dodging just a bit of traffic but easily in time to make the plane. I tipped the driver $25 on top of the fare. I was home in time to see the WDRB Sports segment at 10:45.
Looking back, I'll remember the hallways and corridors where we walked, places I had not gotten to see before. I'll remember those portraits off the White House East portico. I'll remember how the crowd filed into the East Room to get ready for the president and the team. Maybe more than anything, I'll remember the faces of some of the people I saw shake hands with Obama -- Kenny Klein, Tom Jurich people I know worked years and some of them decades for this.
It wasn't my work or my accomplishment, but it's been a story, like all championship stories, that I felt privileged to tell.