Covering the president, let me tell you, is not all white tie state dinners and press briefings in the West Wing. No, there’s some grueling stuff to deal with being on the White House beat. Let me tell you.
President Bill Clinton came to the Queen City — that’s Cincinnati — in March of 1996. I had just left the Cincinnati Post after about six years, and was on my way to Columbus to work for CompuServe on this strange new service they were starting that was going to be a kind of news and entertainment newspaper that you would actually read on a computer. On this thing called the Internet. Or the World Wide Web. I’m not sure I knew the difference then. Not sure I do now.
Anyway, that’s all a way of saying I was between jobs. (If you’re thinking, “Hey, JD, between jobs back then, too?” well … shut up.) And I was looking for things to do. (Shut up!) So a friend at the Associated Press asked me if I wanted to cover Clinton when he came to town.
Of course, I wanted in. How cool is that, right?
As it turned out, it was not that cool. At all. My job was not to report or write or yell a question at the president from behind a rope (though, man, that would have been cool). My job, evidently, was to be there Just in Case.
Now, I don’t know if this is standard procedure for the AP and other news organizations, but it was that day in Cincinnati. My access to the president consisted of standing on a downtown street and watching him walk into a fancy restaurant, then sticking around until he walked out and got back in his limo. That was the whole deal. If something happened — if the Just in Case scenario came to be — I was to observe and get any information I could and immediately call in to the office.
So the motorcade got to the restaurant on Sixth Street, with zero fanfare, and Clinton got out and walked into the restaurant.
(The restaurant was The Maisonette, and it was more than fancy. It was, according to Wikipedia, the most decorated restaurant in North America at the time. I ate there once. It was beautiful. Then. Now, it’s closed, and not so beautiful.)
I stood across the street — the only one there — on a cold March day and watched. And waited. I had a big, puffy down coat on, a notepad in my back pocket and my hands jammed into my coat. I remember thinking, “This guy looks suspicious.” If the Secret Service would have taken me down right then and there, I probably would have deserved it.
After a while — maybe an hour, maybe a little more — Clinton came out. Just in Case did not happen. The motorcade drove off. I called in.
Made $25, I think. Might have been more. Whatever, that was my first taste of the White House beat, and my first and last brush with a president.*
*A few years later, in June of 1999, while covering the NBA Finals at the Alamodome in San Antonio for Sports Illustrated’s website, I did almost literally run into the governor of Texas underneath the stands. George W. is not as tall as he looks.