CHICAGO -- President Obama is inside a Chicago steakhouse finishing up a private fundraising meeting, and the reporters traveling with him are where we usually are -- waiting in an underground parking lot with the presidential motorcade. Until a staffer flings open the door of the press van.
“White House press corps, get out. Plans have changed.” We are led back into the building: Obama isn’t going anywhere.
One thousand miles away, in Fort Hood, Tex., on Wednesday evening, news reports of a shooter on the loose on the Army post — sketchy at first, then growing more alarming -- have penetrated the presidential bubble on Obama’s trip outside Washington. As the traveling reporters are led back into the “press hold,” a nondescript office space where we had just spent an hour being kept away from Obama’s private conference with two dozen donors, White House aides are one level up, scrambling to transform the fundraising space in the steakhouse into an impromptu news conference setup. Tables are removed, chairs are pushed into the back, and a lone American flag is placed in front of somber black curtains.
In a time of national crisis, the White House needs the press to get its message out.
Josh Earnest, the deputy press secretary, tells us, off the record, that the president will deliver brief, unprepared remarks about the shooting -- no more than 90 seconds and with no new details on the fluid situation. We scramble to call our offices and alert our editors. Then the “press wrangler,” a White House staffer assigned to herd the traveling reporters to our assigned marks for carefully arranged photo-ops, hustles us upstairs for an Obama appearance no one had planned on.
The White House bubble can be among the most choreographed of places — where even spontaneous “off the record” stops by the president, such as his visit to a deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Wednesday before the Chicago visit, are planned in advance. But it is in times of crisis where the limits of the White House's enormous presidential entourage are laid raw, at the mercy of breaking news somewhere else in the country -- or the world -- as I first saw up-close nearly two years ago when Obama canceled campaign events in Florida to react to a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
As was the case on that day in July 2012, I was assigned Wednesday as the press pooler, among a dozen journalists responsible for traveling with the president -- on Air Force One, and in the motorcade -- and sending back reports of his activities to the broader White House press corps in Washington.
It is a job that can be thrilling -- such as riding in a Marine Osprey in the Obama helo-cade above the Windy City.
It can also be mundane -- waiting in a hallway while Obama tours Zingerman's deli in Ann Arbor.
Chronicling the daily machinations of the president is the chief duty of the traveling White House press pool. But at its core, we're there in case of an emergency, when close proximity to the president is important so the American public can hear from the commander in chief.
We rush into the steakhouse and take our places in a semicircle about 10 feet from the American flag. A White House transcription service reporter stands in place of Obama to allow cameramen to check their white balance. Ben Wolfgang, a reporter for the Washington Times who is serving as the lead "print-pooler,' writes up the scene on his smartphone, ready to hit send on a pool report that will be sent to thousands of journalists, then transmitted to the world, as soon as Obama finishes talking. My job is to transcribe the president's full remarks as quickly as possible and send out a follow-up pool report.
The president is taking a while to enter the room. It turns out he is ready to speak to us but is waiting for a producer from CNN, serving as the television pooler, to track down a pair of "sticks" -- the lingo for tripod -- for the camera and backup camera that will record his remarks on video. On this trip, the television networks had opted ahead of time to forgo a satellite truck, she later explains to me, to save money. So the president's remarks cannot be shown live -- instead, the video will be carried to CNN's bureau in Chicago and transmitted from there.
Jesse Lewin, a former White House press wrangler now based at a Chicago private public relations firm, is helping the White House press office on this stop -- and he volunteers to retrieve the tripods, sprinting to the perimeter of the Secret Service zone around Obama's event to pick them up from a CNN crew nearby.
With that taken care of, a White House aide gives a signal and in walks the president. He takes his place near the flag; there's no lectern, and he has no teleprompter, no notes. He speaks slowly and carefully: "I just got off the phone with the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to get the latest on the shooting at Fort Hood. Obviously, we're all following it closely. The situation is fluid right now.... We're heartbroken that something like this might have happened again."
His full remarks are 327 words. He takes no questions before turning and walking out of the room. We are hustled back downstairs into the press hold, where we have a few minutes to frantically file before reloading the vans to accompany the motorcade. We're still filing as the motorcade turns onto Lakeshore Drive en route to a second Obama fundraiser at a private residence.
On Twitter, reporters are posting updates of Obama's remarks based on our reports. I even see my entire transcription posted whole-cloth -- typos and all.
Later, on the way back to Washington aboard Air Force One, one reporter wonders aloud why Obama made his remarks so quickly. She notes that in a decade of pooling, she's never seen a president respond in public so urgently to a breaking news crisis before all the facts are known. There is discussion among the reporters about the optics of Obama continuing to raise money for the Democrats if he had not spoken about Fort Hood.
At the same time, Fort Hood is where Obama responded to one of the first national crises of his presidency, when he traveled to the post and spoke at a memorial service after a mass shooting in November 2009. So Obama understood how, as he said in his impromptu remarks on Wednesday, the latest shooting "reopens the pain of what happened at Fort Hood five years ago. We know these families. We know their incredible service to our country and the sacrifices that they make."
The news for the day has happened, but there's still work for the traveling press before leaving Chicago. We're led inside the residence, where Obama speaks to 60 Democratic supporters, only mentioning the Fort Hood shooting in passing. The president calls out to Chicago Tribune reporter Rick Pearson, serving as one of the local press poolers, whom Obama knew during his time in the Illinois statehouse.
"What's going on man? Good to see you. How's everybody in Springfield?" Obama says.
"I'll tell them you said hi," Pearson responds. We're led back to the vans, where Lewin arrives to hand out leftover pieces of cheesecake from the fundraiser.
Back in Washington, and far away in Fort Hood, the news cycle churns on. But here, in the darkened streets of a Chicago subdivision, the traveling White House press corps sits in a van and waits for the president of the United States to make his next move.