What it’s like to attend a presidential press conference

This is the second in an occasional series we’re calling D.C. Press Pass. The idea: take MinnPost readers behind the scenes into places off-limits without a handy-dandy press credential, in the hopes of lifting the curtain a bit and showing how the media in Washington really works.

WASHINGTON — Walk through the front door of the White House (north side), turn left and the room ahead of you will be the ornate East Room.

White designs on white walls, broken up by elegant golden curtains, the room is easily the most regal in the White House, both in design and history.

The East Room is the room of requirement for the biggest messages a president delivers, an 80 by 40 foot space more than big enough to host most of the White House press corps (In fact, several rows of seats at the back sat empty for want of reporters to fill them.)

And so it was Wednesday, as President Obama sought to to update the nation on the federal government’s response to the BP oil spill and, in the process, deflect the growing criticism about President Obama’s handling of it.

It was his first press conference since at least February by my count — though counts on this sort of thing vary wildly. I count a brief stop-by in the White House briefing room as his last. The White House’s count includes a short Q&A he did in April at the Nuclear Security Summit, while the London Daily Telegraph ignores both in saying that this was his first full-blown presser in 10 months.

Regardless of when the last one was, a presidential press conference is always a big deal (as Joe Biden might politely put it). Here’s the view from the press section:

  • Wednesday felt like August, with sickening humidity (owing to looming thunderstorms) and temperatures creeping into the 90s. Usually that’s not an issue when covering the White House because the briefing room and adjacent press area are kept International Falls-cold. Problem is, the pre-presser meeting place was outside.
  • One female reporter in a breathable blouse and knee-length skirt looked at me (decked out in a tan suit and tie), shook her head and said, “I don’t know how you men do it in the summer.” Me either.
  • President Obama knows who he’s calling on ahead of time — he’s got a list in front of him. Typically with Obama that’s most of the big nationals and one or two “wild cards.” Today, the questions (in order) went: Associated Press, ABC, NBC, McClatchy, CBS, Bloomberg, Helen Thomas, New York Times, EFE (a Spanish-language news service) and Fox News.
  • Almost all the questioners stayed on topic with questions on BP and the oil spill. Exceptions were Thomas (Afghanistan), EFE’s Macarena Vidal (Arizona immigration law). Fox News’ Major Garrett’s first question was on the oil spill, the second one was related to questions about whether the White House offered Pennsylvania Democrat Joe Sestak an administration job to get him out of a a primary with Republican-cum-Democrat Sen. with Arlen Specter (whom Sestak later defeated).
  • I sat right behind Vidal, so when Obama called on her and all the TV cameras turned to her, my inbox lit up like a Christmas tree. On the plus side, now I know my best man’s mom is an avid CNN watcher.
  • Regional reporters rarely get called on in big-time presidential pressers. It’s a somewhat self-defeating cycle: Regionals almost never get called on; ergo we don’t go to the White House as often as the big nationals.
  • The other way of looking at that, which is probably somewhat valid, is that the president (and spokesman Robert Gibbs) is more likely to call on people they see every day. Since regional reporters don’t go to the White House that frequently, they don’t get called on as much as the folks who spend more time at 1600 Pennsylvania than they do at home.
  • In any case, the worst thing you could do is show up to a press conference sans question, so I had one at the ready. Here was mine:

Locks on the Chicago River were closed last week for a poison-based kill census that produced thousands of dead fish, but no Asian Carp — a voracious eater that many fear could wipe out native species in the Great Lakes.

Given that result, what is your next step towards stopping the fish from reaching Lake Michigan?

And given the fears that this fish could decimate the Great Lakes fishing industry, and that current electronic barriers won’t hold them off forever, does a scenario exist in which you would ever consider closing the locks on the Chicago River for good?

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