By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2008
HONOLULU, Dec. 25 -- It's prime time and CNN's Ed Henry is standing on the white sand of Waikiki Beach, reporting live on President-elect Barack Obama's holiday vacation in Hawaii. With the volcanic mountain Diamond Head in the distance, Henry is flanked by palm trees, bikini-clad babes and surfer dudes.
"Ed, are those your producers over your right shoulder, like sunning themselves and deciding what books to read?" anchor Anderson Cooper asks.
"No, my producers are working very hard," Henry replies.
"Okay, yeah, I think you're in board shorts and have a mai tai nearby," Cooper says, prodding the cameraman to zoom out.
And voilà! Below his blue dress shirt, Henry's sporting teal swim trunks with orange stripes.
"I kept my shirt on because I don't have the pecs of either Anderson Cooper or Barack Obama," Henry, the network's self-deprecating senior White House correspondent, said later in an interview.
For the White House press corps, covering Obama's 13-day Hawaiian sojourn is a departure from past holidays hunkered down near President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex. They've upgraded their offices from highway hotels in Waco to the Westin Moana Surfrider Resort on Waikiki Beach. They've traded a backdrop of rusted farm equipment and bales of hay for sailboats, longboards and crashing waves.
And they've hung up their winter coats.
"What a difference a year makes," exults NBC White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie, leaning back in a padded armchair on a veranda overlooking the Pacific.
"No offense to the people of Crawford, Texas, but taking the presidential retreat from Crawford to Honolulu is change anyone can believe in," Henry says, borrowing a phrase from Obama's campaign.
Although Obama is staying about 15 miles away in the quiet beach town of Kailua, the television networks decided to broadcast from the beach in front of the Honolulu hotel where journalists and Obama's staff are staying. The location affords a stunning backdrop of Diamond Head, one of Hawaii's most recognizable landmarks. Since the isles are five time zones behind the East Coast, the sun is blazing during reports on the evening news.
But broadcasting live from a tourist-packed beach can be dicey. Sunbathers stretch out just a few feet away, and shirtless vacationers gather close to the correspondents to snap pictures during their reports. And there's no telling if a strong wave might splash the cameras or whether kids might get silly in the background.
"I was really surprised to see how exposed we are," Guthrie says. But, she adds, "you develop a tunnel focus. If I'm doing a live shot, there could be a pack of wolves in front of me and I wouldn't notice."
All week on the air, news anchors have teased the traveling correspondents about their assignments. One suggested during a live broadcast that Guthrie was wearing a swimsuit under her dress. "Which I was not!" Guthrie says.
"There's a perception that in between live shots we're sipping umbrella drinks and fanning ourselves and diving into the ocean," she says. "But actually I spend most of my time in my hotel room working on stories."
Henry says that when he calls his colleagues in Atlanta, New York or Washington, "they start cursing at me. I called one of our producers and I said, 'Aloha!,' and she said, 'Bleep you! Don't 'aloha' me.' " On Tuesday, when Obama's staff released a report about contact his aides had with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, television correspondents were reporting around the clock. Henry said he did 20 live shots that day for CNN and its sister networks. On such days, the seriousness of the news regarding the president-elect contrasts with the seaside location where reporters stand. And that raises the question of attire.
"Do correspondents dress formally as they normally do, with a suit and tie, or embrace the venue?" asks Jeff Goldman, a CBS News producer who arrived days before Obama and selected the beachfront spot. "Some correspondents chose to go Hawaiian and dress far differently than they would on the White House North Lawn."
"You're standing on the beach, but you're talking about the economy and the report" on Blagojevich, says Ben Tracy, a CBS News correspondent from Los Angeles covering Obama's trip.
"The first night I did it, I was wearing slacks, a dress shirt and tie because we were talking about fairly serious things," Tracy says. On other days, he has worn casual shirts, shorts and sandals.
"The best part of this assignment is the shoes: flip-flops," ABC News White House correspondent Yunji de Nies says. "When you work at the White House like I do, you wear heels every day. Here, half the stand-ups I do, I'm barefoot."
For journalists who slogged through long winters in Iowa and New Hampshire covering Obama's campaign, covering the president-elect's trip to Hawaii is a long-awaited respite. "Unfortunately, Hawaii was not a swing state," jokes Bonney Kapp, an embed producer for Fox News Channel. "Last I checked, the beaches in Ohio weren't exactly stellar."
Kapp and Sunlen Miller, an off-air reporter for ABC News, spent last Christmas in a Des Moines hotel room watching "A Christmas Story." This year, Miller decorated her Waikiki Beach hotel room with strings of white Christmas lights, ornaments and her favorite stocking from home.
The Hawaii trip also lets journalists add island color to their reports. On "Good Morning America," de Nies, who grew up in Honolulu, tasted a traditional plate lunch that Obama is said to favor. She and Miller also recruited a local ukulele player to sing "Mele Kalikimaka" (the Hawaiian translation for "Merry Christmas") on camera.
"It's just fun to show a little bit of what this place is all about," de Nies said. "I never thought I would get to say 'Mele Kalikimaka' on television."