Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I was sitting in the White House briefing room listening raptly as Press Secretary Josh Earnest parsed reporters’ questions at the daily news briefing when the compound went into lockdown. The photographers at the periphery of the room swung their cameras around so that they faced the windows, which spilled out onto the North Lawn. There was a rustle as about a quarter of the Press Corps’ heads turned towards the window, where a clutch of heavily armed Secret Service had just disgorged themselves from the front door and were now patrolling the ground. Earnest, seemingly oblivious to the disturbance, continued unfurling paragraph-long answers in his cool, even cadence. I read online, as the press conference continued, that there was a shooting on Capitol Hill, but it was quickly contained.
Most of the reporters asked seriously intoned national security related questions circling around events of the past few days. What was the latest on the attack in Lahore, Pakistan? Did the Belgian government have inadequate antiterrorism measures in place? Why was the president reluctant to raise hands with Raul Castro? A 2016 politics question spun in. One reporter asked Earnest had information on the lockdown—a question he answered with just a tinge of sarcasm, reminding the journalists that he had been at the podium the whole time. I felt like the questions did a good job of elucidating the White House’s position on the news of the hour, but Earnest is an extraordinarily deft maneuverer, evading pointed questions to deliver White House talking points. One reporter asked about the Syrian army’s recent reconquest of Palmyra from ISIL, for example, noting that it demonstrated the strength of the human-rights-abusing Syrian government. Earnest didn’t acknowledge the victory, instead pivoting to the importance of achieving a political settlement to end the years long civil war. I was disappointed that he wasn’t cornered into answering questions like that more directly.
The Daily Gazette had originally worked with us to get registered for the Easter Egg Roll event, where the president and first lady made an appearance. We were never credentialed because of a White House snafu, so we spent much of the morning walking from gate to gate and making breathless calls to the White House press office as we stood at the fence. Somewhat surprisingly, after resending my social security number and basic information with my smartphone, I was buzzed in. I was also taken aback by the lack of apparent security on the White House lawn as I walked to the pressroom. I didn’t notice one secret service member between the front guard post and the White House itself.
As a final note, the members of the White House Press Corps I talked to were amazingly warm and encouraging of questions. I met a reporter at the gates, who I later saw enter the pressroom. She greeted me like an old friend, before making a self-deprecating remark about bringing a takeout lunch into the White House. I expected lots of adrenaline and ritualized displays of power, but instead found a group of unpretentious and kind individuals.
My only regret is that Philadelphia is a solid three hours from Washington, D.C., further than I anticipated. If we were closer, I would be getting press clearance for the daily briefings on a regular basis. Even still, I will be back soon.
Featured image courtesy of whitehouse.gov.