For one thing, I hadn’t been in Washington DC long enough to really acquire the jaded affect of the rest of the DC press corps and I stuck out like a sore thumb. For another, I wasn’t exactly in the DC press corps–I was a PC reviewer for a newspaper about public sector computing, Government Computer News.
My interest in the White House was usually limited to presidential use of Macs and PCs. Clinton and Monica Lewinsky would never appear on my radar…unless Clinton used an optical mouse instead of a cigar.
So the day I got my first invitation to a White House press conference was something of a red letter day. The feds were launching Energy Star, a pet program of Al Gore’s, and I was invited because I’d written about it. I went through the background check (wasn’t much), and took the metro down to the White House.
Now, I could get lost on my own block, spatially speaking, so I arrived in plenty of time and didn’t even try to find the press conference room on my own. I went to the first guardpost I saw and asked for directions.
The guard found my name on an old Convergent Technologies workstation, said “You’re early,” and escorted me to a little gatehouse-like building near the White House lawn. It was crowded with reporters and the guard motioned me into the one remaining seat, between Sam Donaldson and someone who looked like Cokie Roberts (I never much liked her so I wasn’t sure if it was her or not). She rolled her eyes as I sat down and pointedly turned away from me.
It was a muggy June day, and the building wasn’t air-conditioned. “Whew,” I said, “It’s sure hot in here. Should we open a window?” Silence. “So,” I tried again, “I didn’t realize this would be a big story for the national networks…?”
“Jeeeesus,” muttered a reporter, glaring at me. I took the hint and shut up. 15 minutes passed while the room grew hotter and hotter.
“Hey, Sam,” said one guy, “Congratulations on yesterday,” and started a quiet round of applause. I joined in even though I had no idea why. (I found out later that Sam Donaldson had nailed Clinton in a now-famous interview). That kicked off a round of insider stories; I listened avidly but couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t invite another round of eyerolling from the Cokie clone.
It was then I noticed that Donaldson’s trademark gypsy eyes seemed to be smudging. I leaned in for a closer look; a dark, sticky line was seeping down his eyelid. “Pardon me, Mr. Donaldson, ” I said helpfully,” but your mascara is running.”
The banter stopped; everyone turned and stared at me. The guard shook his head, Donaldson snorted, and the Cokie-like female said, “Oh my gaaaaawd.”
“Ms. Morgan,” said the guard, “You might want to get your crew into position.”
“Beg pardon? My what?”
“Your crew, ma’am. Producer? Camera man? You know?”
A little investigation and the guard discovered what had been obvious to the rest of us for some time: I didn’t belong in this group. Someone had mixed me up with a national news service reporter and sent me to interview President Clinton about US involvement in the Gulf War.
They got me to the right press conference, where I interviewed Al Gore (who reminded me more of Herman Munster than anything else but, like Herman, was a pretty nice guy). I also accidentally stepped backwards and drove my high heel into his instep, but that’s another story. And I sat in the wrong chair, got blessed out for it by no less than Helen Thomas (it was her chair), which is how I learned about protocol in a White House press conference.*
Anyway, I got my interviews, wrote my story and that was that. I’d officially covered a presidential event. Somehow it was a lot less thrilling than I’d imagined.
*The protocol is, if you’re a hick from the sticks (or a high-tech publication reporter), you do NOT sit in the comfy front-row chairs with the “real” reporters. You stand in the back with the peasants, you do NOT raise your hand and you keep your bloody mouth shut.