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For aides, reporters in Hawaii, a mix of work and play

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010; 2:32 PM

HONOLULU - If the beachfront home where the Obamas are staying in Hawaii is the "Winter White House," then you might call the Moana Surfrider this island's version of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

The palm-shaded, seaside resort and spa is housing more than three dozen White House staffers and journalists who followed Obama to Hawaii for his annual vacation.

After all, president is never truly off work, so neither are the people who aid him and the news organizations who cover him.

At the Westin-operated Surfrider, White House staffers keep themselves apprised of major developments in their areas of expertise, occasionally venturing 10 miles down the road to Kailua, the town where Obama is staying, to brief him on the issues of the day. Journalists file stories on the president's activities.

The whole crew, it seems, is hoping that no major controversy or news breaks out, since that would mean more work and far less play.

"Sometimes it's long hours, but it's Hawaii," said Ed Henry, a longtime CNN White House correspondent. The atmosphere is ideal for relaxing, at least compared with being in Washington. The president isn't wearing a suit, so neither is almost anyone else.

Henry, who also covered the Bush White House, is here for the third straight year and has created something of a brand covering Obama's vacations. He trades his traditional news correspondent garb of a suit and tie for a seemingly endless variety of multi-colored Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops.

In addition to his on-air reports, he posts on his Twitter page pictures of the ocean, the landscape and Hawaiian sunrises and sunsets.

Some viewers will e-mail him and say "are you kidding," Henry says, as they view his attire as too casual for covering the president. But others appreciate him for not taking the assignment too seriously.

"I have a whole new wardrobe because of President Obama," Henry said.

In Washington, White House reporters attend an event with the president nearly every day. In Hawaii, Obama intentionally makes almost no major announcements, and most journalists don't even see him most of the days they are here.

Reporters take turns assuming the routine duty of literally following Obama, chronicling when he goes to exercise at a military base near his rental home or takes his daughters to buy shave ice.

To be sure, there is work to be done. The public - and the editors who are on the mainland - still have a lot of interest in the president, so reporters frequently file dispatches on Obama's activities, such as when he went to church here on Sunday.

And Obama meets with aides, such as Nick Rasmussen, a counterterrorism adviser, and Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, who briefed him on national security developments Sunday.

Then there's the advance team, which prepares ahead of time for Obama's public appearances around the island.

Aside from those routine situations, both reporters and aides try to stay ready in case of major news. Nick Shapiro, a White House assistant press secretary for homeland security issues, bought a waterproof cover for his BlackBerry so that he can go surfing but keep his device with him at all times.

Shapiro was in Hawaii with Obama last year when an airline passenger attempted to detonate explosives on a plane bound for Detroit. That incident turned Obama's Christmas trip upside down, as aides scrambled to learn more about the so-called underwear bomber. Eventually the president appeared before the cameras to give a short speech about airline security.

"So far, this trip has been more relaxing than last year," Shapiro said. "But we are all prepared and ready should something happen, and we are all operating under the posture that of course something could happen."

Yunji De Nies, an on-air correspondent for ABC News, says she can't go surfing at all, with or without a waterproof BlackBerry cover. "I have to be camera-ready all the time," she said. "I can't go from taking a swim to standing in front of the camera."

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