West Wing Story: Pool-Duty Survival Kit

"Be sure to bring water with you," my colleague Bob Deans of Cox Newspapers said to me with a stricken look on his face. He had just gotten back from a 12-hour "pool duty" during the G8 summit in Canada last week. I was up next and he was giving me some survival tips.

Pool duty is the only kind of pool where water is not guaranteed. The pool is the 13-person group of reporters that covers the president up close. The duty rotates. We ride on Air Force One, see historic events and ask the president questions. It's great. Most of the time.

That day in Canada, Bob had seen a lot of security (who knew Mounties could be surly?) but had not a glimpse of the man we cover. There are days when we spend most of your time in the eerily named "holding room." When we are not holding we are most likely "rolling"--hustling to get on a bus to go to things like a "bilat pool spray" (a photo-op of a bilateral meeting between the president and some world leader).

Last Thursday, "pool call" was at 4:30 a.m. By 7 a.m. I had been on three different buses. Thanks to Bob, I had brought water for the long stretch to the G8 summit site some two hours away from where the press corps was staying. Bob had given me some other good advice: "Don't let anyone sit next to you. They are really trying to pack 'em in." I hogged two seats and managed to get an extra hour's sleep using my laptop case as a pillow.

The truth about covering the White House is that a lot of it is not very glamorous. Sure it makes for good cocktail party conversation, and my relatives in North Dakota think I've made something of my life. But pool duty is kind of like medical residency. It's a bizarre little subculture that you have to go through--usually sleep deprived--in order to join the profession. The process breaks you down and rebuilds you into a White House reporter.

That's hyperbole of course. It's not the Marines. But White House veterans--especially the photographers--have survival kits just in case pool duty goes bad. These are the guys who have to see the action (not like reporters who can reconstruct it later). Sometimes the wait is long; sometimes it gets rough. Larry Downing of Reuters carries beef jerky and glucose tablets in his backpack. He packs a GPS device and always travels with a compass attached to his credentials in case he has to get to the southwest side of somewhere fast.

Photographer Luke Frazza of Agence France-Press brings rain gear even in a drought and zip-ties--those self-locking plastic strips--in case he breaks a camera strap or he needs to fix something, anything. Scott Applewhite of AP packs a first-aid kit so complete it could tend to the Red Army. After a pushing match with a gaggle of Russian journalists in a hot holding room at the Bush-Putin bilat last Thursday, one TV cameraman suggested something else to add to the press pool survival kit: "Air freshener," he quipped.

All his actual military training didn't help Sean Jordan last week. He works for White House TV, the official record. The Mounties couldn't have cared less that he was a soldier or a White House employee; he had the wrong pass to get into the G8. But instead of just turning him away, the Canadian police decided to hold him for three hours in a holding area--literally a four-by-four chain-link pen--until the White House brought him a new credential. The incident gave me a whole new appreciation for holding rooms. "I used to like Canadians until today," Sean said after he arrived safely back at Andrews Air Force Base.

Not only did you need the right credential to get into the summit site last week, but you needed it to get out. The laminated photo IDs had a wavy bar code on the back, which were diligently scanned. One TV producer almost didn't make it in on time for an event because she had covered over her bar code with a sticker. She frantically scraped it off with her fingernail while a press aide added some spit to make it more pliable.

Security was understandably tight, but it added hours to everything. While I was complaining about getting up at 3:30 a.m. the photographers had already been up for two hours. They left at 2 a.m. to drive two hours to Calgary to get "swept"--cleared through security--then hopped back in the bus for the two-hour ride back. Glucose pills anyone?

At the end of an exhausting day we all got in a military helicopter for a quick ride to the Calgary airport to board Air Force One. As we choppered through Kananaskis Valley, we had a spectacular view of the Rockies. The mountains were still coated with pockets of snow and the air was fresh and cool. Instead of dozing I breathed deeply and told myself how lucky I am.