My Day in D.C.
As Tina alluded to the other day, I spent most of Tuesday driving to and from Washington, D.C., eight hours on the road broken up by three hours in our nation’s capital. Of that, I spent about 30 minutes at the White House. And that was pretty cool.
The trip’s purpose: A chance to interview Ben Feller ’92, White House reporter for the Associated Press since 2006. We’ve mentioned Ben on the blog, but we agreed that the nature of his job made him too compelling a story not to feature in the magazine. That’s why I made the drive — and if you’re an Alumni Association member, keep an eye out for a Q&A with Ben in the May/June issue.
In the meantime, a few highlights from my trip…
-White House security is thorough, but sort of underwhelmingly so. Basically, I walk up right up to the front gate (the Northwest gate, it’s called, in the tall iron fence that runs across the front of the executive mansion) and a guy sitting in the guard stand on the other side of the fence asks my name through an intercom. I’m on the list (having passed along my social security number and date of birth for a background check a few days earlier), so he buzzes me in.
That was easy! Except, of course, I’m not really “in” just yet. Once past the front fence, I slide my Pennsylvania driver’s license through a slot to the previously mentioned guard (sitting behind VERY thick glass) who checks it out and slides it back, along with a red badge with “PRESS” stamped on both sides. Then I walk through another door, into the security screening room. There, two more guards — they’re relaxed enough, but they’re also uniformed and armed — lead me through a variation on the airport routine: walk through the X-ray machine, all metal out of my pockets. But they don’t make me take off my shoes, jacket or belt, nor do they wand me or pad me down. Once I’m through, I’m inside — for real. It all seems too easy, until I remember that there are probably dozens of cameras (not to mention a few pairs of eye peering through rifle scopes) watching my every move. It’s creepy and reassuring, all at once.
Anyway: There’s a long driveway that curves toward the West Wing, which is where the press room is located, and for that 20 or 30 yard span, I’m free to stand or stroll around the grounds of the home of the leader of the free world. (Again: pretty cool.) I call Ben, who tells me he needs five minutes to wrap up some work. Since it’s beautiful out, I stroll around snapping pictures (and wondering constantly if someone might confiscate my camera or ask me what the heck I’m doing; no one does). Then I happen upon a clutch of TV camera guys standing and waiting outside the far-west entrance of the White House, in front of which some diplomatic limo is parked (I later learn it’s waiting for Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, who’s coming from his first meeting with President Obama). One of the camera guys is wearing a Penn State jacket, so I introduce myself.
His name is Mike — I totally, utterly fail to get his last name — and he’s a 1998 Penn State grad now shooting video for C-SPAN. [2/27 UPDATE: Mike is Mike Biddle '98.] Tha Mike tells me he’s one of a handful of Penn Staters in the White House press corps, and one of a slew of Big Ten alumni working for C-SPAN. (Who knew?) Ben Feller comes out to meet me shortly thereafter, and leads me inside the press room. He’s gracious enough to take a break from prepping for that night’s presidential address — a huge story on a beat where every story is pretty big — to give me the tour.
The news media are pretty well crammed in at the White House. There’s the briefing room, where the president or (usually) his press secretary speak to the press on a daily basis. There are (if I count right) seven rows of seven chairs each, plus two rows in the back set up with permanent TV camera stations. It was all renovated a couple of years ago (you can read about the room’s history here), before which, Ben tells me, the chairs were mostly falling apart, and the camera guys stood on an old podium with their freestanding cameras. It’s not luxurious by any standards, but Feller assures me it’s much better than it was.
Ben introduces me to Dan Huff ’82 Lib, a cameraman for AP Television. One of the now-permanent TV camera stations — they look almost like something you’d imagine from the space shuttle cockpit — is Dan’s, and he’s marked his territory with a Nittany Lion head magnet. Penn Staters really have put their mark on this place.
After that, we walk through the media work areas, which are cramped enough to remind me of something out of a small cruise ship or cheap European hotel (if I’d ever been on a submarine, I imagine it would be similarly tight). Everyone (the major wire services, TV networks, and a handful of big-city dailies) is squeezed into these tiny workspaces. The AP “office” is essentially a walk-in closet with desks for four reporters, two on each side, with barely any room between their backs. Good thing Ben seems to get along with his co-workers. These are tight quarters.
We walk through the media break room — again, small — and past a men’s room that features the sign you see here; I’m assuming they’re out of “soap.” Then downstairs, past the soundproof booths for the radio reporters, and back upstairs and toward the front of the briefing room, where we walk past the podium with the presidential seal and approach the same door the president himself steps out of when he comes into the room. Turns out there’s another door there, perpendicular, which goes downstairs to “the pool,” so named because it really used to be a pool (more about that here, including the wonderful irony of a newspaper funding the pool’s construction). It’s now used to house seemingly endless lengths of electronic cables needed to keep the press corps plugged in.
Some of the walls still hold the original blueish tile from the pool, and at some point, people started signing their names on it. It’s a rite of passage now, and Ben helps me find his name.
And then we’re back upstairs and out the door (though not before I snap a quick photo from in front of the podium, getting me as close as I’ll ever get to the president’s-eye view of a room), out the gate and off the grounds. Just that quickly, I’ve lost my insider status and am back to the civilian grind. It’s kind of a let-down, especially since I had to drop my press badge into a slot near the gate before I left. Unless I take my kids for a tour in a few years, I don’t imagine I’ll be inside the White House ever again.
As Ben and I walk down Pennsylvania Avenue toward a coffee shop, I ask about that — the sense of “Wow, I get to go to work at the White House every day,” and how long it took him to get over it. He tells me he really never has gotten over it — that in fact he actively tries not to get over it. He says he wants to always appreciate his job and the access he has — the fact that, at any given moment, he might be on Air Force One, or in the Oval Office, or even just in the confines of the press briefing room with a chance to ask a question of — and expect an answer from — the president of the United States.
Ben is incredibly gracious with his time, and after we sit for a terrific hour-long conversation about his experiences on the White House beat, it’s not hard to see why he’s got this gig (and why he’s probably pretty good at it); in both his outlook on the job and its responsibilities, and in his dedication to the task, Ben is relentlessly professional. I left with the makings of what should be a pretty compelling Q&A, which should land in your mailbox about two months from today.
P.S. Click on any of the photos to see a much larger version.
Ryan Jones, senior editor
Entry filed under: Alumni, Penn Staters in the news media, Politics, The Penn Stater magazine. Tags: Associated Press, Ben Feller, C-SPAN, Dan Huff, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, Mike Biddle, President Barack Obama, The White House, White House Pool.