Thursday, June 1, 2006

Ever Ridden in a Presidential Motorcade?

I've been in a motorcade one time, but while many others who have experienced it say that it's a hassle, I enjoy the thrill. A call came in, complete with area code 202, and I knew it was a member of the White House advance press to give me details on where I would report.

So, it was official: it was time to try my hand at photographing President Goerge W Bush, who was scheduled to land at BWI/Thurgood Marshall Airport in Linthicum, MD for a fundraising effort for Gov. Robert Ehrlich. It can be fun for a local photographer to be involved in the White House press pool; it's one of those things that seasoned journalists know can be a "dog and pony show," but for the local media, it's a fresh experience to get away from the routine daily assignments.

I was stopped short of where I wanted to go by a Maryland Port Authority cop, one of many who lined the airport loop road, who seemed to have a suspicious eye for anyone who was supposed to be at the scheduled location. Even after I told him my name, "you won't be allowed in," he said, noting that "a few other media" had been turned back. No problem, I replied, as I confidently hit the speed dial for the White House press contact. Ooh, I love getting into a battle of power. Before the phone rang twice, suddenly, he changed his tune and told me where the Signature jet service was.

There are a number of levels of security when local press are involved in covering the President. As I entered the building at Signature, my name was checked and doublechecked, and I went through the body search and then an equipment search by a very kind-looking pooch who stepped on one of my cameras. At the instruction of the Secret Service, I had to power all my gear up and operate each piece of equipment to show that they all work. "The dog won't hurt your equipment," the officer said, as the canine sniffed my PowerBook. "Maybe not, but dogs drool," I said.

It was then a short walk to one of the press vans, this one, driven by a member of the Maryland GOP. A typical-looking republican with the obligatory short-cut straight dark hair, dark suit, white shirt and red tie, he boasted about the sports car he owned while we waited for the helicopter brigade to land. The first one, a twin-bladed helo, slowly lowered above the landing zone, but then, *foomp* it suddenly dropped with a thud on the ground.

I busted a gut, laughing at the hard landing, and even the officials all along the tarmac laughed. One of the reporters came into the van. "That was the hardest landing I've ever had!" she said. The second press helicopter landed, shortly followed by Marine One - two more helicopters, one ridden by Bush and the other one, a decoy. "I can tell which one is G.W's," I boasted..."It's that one," pointing to one of the two. "How do you know?" asked the press liason. "Because it made the softest landing!"

As the blades of both helos stopped, the doors of each one opened, and out came the President, who swiftly entered his limosine. Even the plain black limosines look impressive, with the ultra-thick, green-colored bulletproof glass windows and flags of the U.S. and presidential seal fluttering in the wind.

As we entered the street surrounding Thurgood Marshall Airport, all traffic was stopped as we rode along the other side of the median. "Why do we drive on this side?" I asked. "Because we can." That was good enough for me. As we started off for the hotel, I asked out loud how many people were sweating in traffic, trying to get to the airport, since the whole area was on lockdown. Police held up traffic everywhere. Parking lots, homes, streets, and businesses, plus the light rail and even air traffic yielded for the motorcade.

It was a short ride to the Marriott hotel, where Gov. Ehrlich had a fundraiser, but Michael Steele wasn't there as it was said that he had a prior engagement in Las Vegas. As we waited, members of the White House staff came by, making sure we were all right. Eventually, two of the Secret Service walked by with plates of hors d'oeuvres. I had to do a doubletake. So, why not, I'll show some muscle the only way I could with a guy holding a concealed glock and a license to kill, and make him come back and wait for me to grab a few snacks!

Once President Bush appeared, he and the governor stood almost nose to nose, shaking hands with smiles as the commander-in-chief was introduced. After about half an hour of taking photos and video, I returned to my PowerBook to download images. Suddenly, the prez was finished and we had to scramble for the vans to return. Abandoning my attempt to copy the images over to the desktop, I stuffed everything into my backpack and ran to catch up with the press corps, making it into the van just in time to return.

The driver definitely didn't have his racing foot on, lagging behind the motorcade. I wanted to tell him to step on it, but bit my tongue as we finally caught up to the rest of the vehicles, black limosines and tricked out Chevy Tahoes, which sandwiched the white Ford panel vans. People can try all they can to make their own rides so tight that they turn heads, but only a presidential motorcade can stop air and ground traffic and compel people to simply stand by the open road to catch a glimpse of The Man. And that's whether they like the one in office, or not. He still commands the ultimate attention. Not many people have actually ridden an actual presidential motorcade. This was my second one; the first one was for President Bill Clinton, who had landed at Fort McHenry and ridden to the inner harbor.

Our convoy returned onto the tarmac, but the president was already out of his limo and inside Marine One, which slowly turned its rotors to full speed and rolled out to the takeoff zone. One by one, the helicopters took to the air, banking right in a slow turn over the airport as the sun set, on their way back to the White House.

And minute by minute, the limosines, press vehicles, Secret Service and special ops units and buses exited the area, returning Linthicum to its normal routine.

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