Covering Obama: three presidents, three generations

Covering the president can mean drawing the newsroom short straw. It means an early morning and a late night, hours of standing, getting searched, getting credentialed … and more standing. The phrase “Hurry up and wait” was coined by journalists covering the Commander in Chief.

So this time around, I brought my teenage daughter to share in the joy.
We started our day at 6 a.m., tempering the blow with a stop at the coffee shop before hitting the road. I pulled over to do a couple of call-in advancers for our affiliate stations in Quincy, Ill., and Columbia.

We arrived in Warrensburg and parked in the press lot to check in our equipment around 9 a.m. so that Secret Service could do a bomb sweep. We weren’t allowed back in until several hours later.

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So we went downtown, which was a veritable ghost town. So much so that a reporter stopped me on the sidewalk and asked if I would do an interview about the presidential visit. In fact, when we got inside the bakery to get a muffin and use their wireless, we found that at least a dozen other reporters were doing the same thing. Monte Schisler from KRES in Moberly joined us. My coffee was served in a KCMO mug, which is coincidentally another one of our affiliate stations in Kansas City.

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We all got busy, meaning Monte and I interviewed locals, cut up soundbytes, sent in voicers. Claire killed time by surfing YouTube. Or something.
clurrtwitWe found a nearby restaurant, where we ran into Rep. Rory Ellinger from University City. I scheduled an interview with him for after the speech to get what we call “reax.” After that, onto the auditorium. I’ll let Claire tell you how the events unfolded from there.

“There were a lot of people there, but my mom and I went as Learfield press, so it didn’t take as long to get in. The security was really tight, and all around getting in and getting all the equipment set up took probably 40 minutes.”

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“I was really excited when we got to Warrensburg around 9 a.m., but he didn’t actually even get there until around 5 p.m. or so. He was supposed to get there at 4 p.m., and everyone was probably waiting in the auditorium since like 2 p.m. Three people even passed out from the heat,” Claire recounts.

Waiting for the pres

I asked her to write for me a paragraph about the speech. What was relevent, what stuck.
“Obama discussed issues about the economy,” she said. “And I think he made some very good points. About how the system of government we’ve been under for the past 15 years, and how under the Bush administration we’ve been so reliant on foreign oil, and foreign imports for so long that we have basically been in a downward spiral for a long time. Whenever Obama took office the country had basically hit rock bottom. And in the past five years since Obama has been president, we are less reliant on foreign oil then we’ve been in 15 years. The stock market is better than it’s been in a long time, and it will take maybe 10 years to get the economy not only on track, but better and stronger than ever.”

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Here’s the part of Obama’s speech she’s referring to.

“And then what happened was that engine began to stall. The bargain began to fray. So technology made some jobs obsolete — nobody goes to a bank teller anymore. You want to schedule a trip somewhere, you get online. Global competition sent some jobs overseas. When I was in Galesburg, we talked about the Maytag plant that used to make household brands there and people — thousands of people used to work in the plant and it went down to Mexico. Then Washington doled out bigger tax cuts to folks at the top income brackets, smaller minimum wage increases for people who were struggling. You combine all of this and the income of the top one percent quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, but the typical family’s incomes barely budged.”

“So a lot of middle-class families began to feel that the odds were stacked against them — and they were right. And then for a while, this was kind of papered over because we had a housing bubble going on, and everybody was maxing out on their credit cards, everybody was highly leveraged, and there were a lot of financial deals going around. And so it looked like the economy was going to be doing OK, but then by the time I took office, the bottom had fallen out. And it cose, as we know, millions of Americans their jobs or their homes or their savings. And that long-term erosion of middle class security was evident for everybody to see.”

“Now, the good news is, five years later, five years after the crisis first hit, America has fought its way back…”

And for her, that’s what stuck. We watched and recorded, she manned the video camera on the risers, we packed up and went home. I felt smug and good as she complained about how exhausted she was. I reminded her she did not do the entire day in heels, nor did she have to process stories, photos and sound when we got back to Jefferson City.

“All in all it was an amazing experience and I will not forget it,” she would later write.

Flashback nearly 60 years, when my father got his first (and last) close-up look at the President of the United States. He was about the same age as Claire is now, a freshman at St. Peter High School adjacent to the Capitol. The year was 1952 and Harry Truman came through Capital City on a whistlestop tour across the U.S.

Truman on train 1948

These Truman photos are from a campaign stop in Jefferson City in 1948. Photos from his 1952 stop, which was at 10:10 p.m., are not available.

Truman’s speech in Jefferson City was not so different than Obama’s speech in Warrensburg:

“One of the most fundamental issues in this campaign is the great difference in outlook and approach between our two political parties,” Truman told the crowd. “The Democratic Party has always been the party with a heart for the people-concerned about their wants and their needs. With us, the people come first.”

Truman said, “With the Republicans, property and profits come first–ahead of the people. The Republican Party has a calculating machine where its heart ought to be. And the calculator only works for the big lobbies and the special interest organizations who pay the party’s bills and call the tune.”

Truman in Jefferson City 1948

He also talked about the need to bolster federal funds for education as classroom sizes were growing and teacher salaries remained stagnant. Sixty-one years later, Obama talked about the growing concern of student debt and our country’s responsibility to make education affordable for young people.

Truman, 1952: “The Republicans are always talking about freedom — but they take their stand on the side of ignorance, every time. And ignorance is freedom’s worst enemy, and always will be.”

Obama, 2013: “So we can either throw up our hands and resign ourselves to lower living standards, or we can do what America has always done — we can adapt, we can pull together, we can fight back, we can win. And if we don’t invest in American education, then we’re going to put our kids, our workers, our countries, our businesses at a competitive disadvantage. Because if you think education is expensive, you should see how much ignorance is going to cost in the 21st Century.”

But my dad, who would want me to mention that he was, is, and always will be a diehard Republican, doesn’t remember the political nuances of the time, or the in-fighting.

“President Harry Truman lost a lot of popularity because of several issues that confronted him prior to the 1952 presidential campaign,” he said. “Consequently, during that year he decided to bow out of the race for president and let Adlai Stevenson run against Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nevertheless, in 1952 President Truman made a trip through Jefferson City on the train, and as a member of the St. Peter’s band, I was privileged to play for and see President Truman give a speech.”

Dad played the trumpet, he said, and his sister Martha played the clarinet.

“He stood at the back of the last train car and addressed those assembled there,” he recalls. “It is a memory that is imprinted in my mind forever. I can still see President Truman talking to the group. He gestured with both arms up and down, up and down. The content of his speech escapes me, but as a freshman in high school in a local band, it was a memorable sight to behold. It was the first U.S. president I had ever seen in person, and to this day, the only president I have ever seen in real life.”

Not so this reporter. And to be honest, I had to think for a minute about which president I saw in person first, and where.

Bill Clinton, Paris, June of 1999.

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It was sunny and there was a chill in the air for June. Coincidentally, he had spoken at Whiteman Air Force Base less than a week before.

I was on a studies abroad trip that took me all over France for a summer semester. It was a chance event. A moment that flashed by in a heartbeat. My classmates and I were waiting to cross the street near the Elysee Palace when we were stopped by security and told we could not cross. We were not told why. Soon we spotted the motorcade and I was able to pop off one blurry shot on my Pentax K-1000.

Later I would learn that he was meeting with Jacques Chirac prior to the G-8 summit in Cologne. At the center of global news and their talks were Kosovo, Bosnia, the Middle East peace process, the European economy, and NATO expansion.

Covering the president. Lessons for a kid that there’s a bigger world out there. Political philosophies that transcend generations. Much has changed over the decades, but much has stayed the same.

Namely, politics and teenagers.

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Remembering Doc

My introduction to politics came in the 1983, when my dad’s old college roommate from Mizzou decided to take a run at a seat in the House of Representatives, 111th district.

So that summer, my family spent weekends painting signs, washing bumpers at county fairs for those who agreed to take a sticker, and going door-to-door to ask people to vote for Doc.

That was the summer I figured out that a collie on a chain, if he’s angry enough, can and will pull loose from that chain and give chase. Therefore, it was also the summer that launched my running career.

I was nine years old, and I grumbled a lot about “politics” that year, which seemed like a lot of hard work and ham sandwiches to me in between the near-death experiences. I was pretty sure this politics business was not for me.

But Doc didn’t seem like a politician to me. He was just my dad’s friend — short and round, always with a ready smile — who would drop by our house in his white farm veterinarian truck to help a sheep with a prolapsed uterus, a heifer with mastitis, or to vaccinate the barn cats for distemper.

I never took Doc too seriously as a kid, unless he was treating our livestock. That’s when I would quietly watch him work, listen to his soothing, gentle reassurances to the animals in distress, and trusted the look on his face to convey whether things would be OK — or they would not.

But, helping him that summer paid off. Or, Doc’s tilted cowboy hat and ready smile had won folks over in rural central Missouri, and he won that election. It was a shared victory, and one we would follow for the next 23 years.

When we went to see Doc at the Capitol the next year, he was not wearing his dirty jeans and cowboy hat, or even his National Guard Army Reserve uniform. He was wearing a suit. But he still didn’t look like a politician.

Today we lay to rest Dr. Merrill Moses Townley. He died last Tuesday, on Election Day.
He was a man who wore many uniforms, and while I don’t know which of them he’ll be buried in, I’ll always remember him in dirty jeans and a cowboy hat, ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work.

Rush busts into the People’s House

Rush Limbaugh is offensive to a lot of people. He’s God’s gift to others. That wide difference of opinion led to a bizarre event at the Capitol Monday afternoon that was a mixture of rights and wrongs.

Photo courtesy House Communications

I had a college professor for Sociology 101 who started the semester by saying, “If I don’t piss you off, I’m not doing my job.” That got our attention. And that’s what Limbaugh does to audiences every day. He incites them, provokes them, shocks them … all to get their attention.

Art is the same way.

Its very purpose is to provoke thoughts and feelings. Just like celebrities, some art exists merely to be beautiful, some to enrich our lives through iconography, emotions, and yes, even outrage.

The freedoms afforded us have served us well, especially the freedom of speech, which we’ve used often to protest statues throughout the United States. Such as:

Natchitoches, La. – An 82-year-old statue of an elderly black man tipping his hat — “Uncle Jack” — has been removed. The NAACP began protesting the statue during the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s. It was seen by the black community as a symbol of “the worst form of slavery known to human kind,” according to LSU history professor Charles Vincent. It was the first statue of a black man erected in the U.S. The Smithsonian wants it.

How do you think the Native Americans of South Dakota felt about an entire mountain — smack dab in the middle of their most sacred ground — bearing the faces of our nation’s founders? To them, I imagine it was like saying, “Here’s what we think of your holy ground, and while we’re at it, gaze upon a massive symbol of the very nation that has already taken everything else from you.”

Those feelings persist. Just four years ago, a gallery in Rapid City replaced a statue of a Native man with his hands tied behind his back. The Lakota thought it was degrading, even though the artist said it was meant to show that when Native Americans were put on reservations, they would never be able to live according to their heritage again. Nonetheless, the statue came down.

Photo by Chip Ellis

A statue in West Virginia depicts a somewhat masculine female veteran, and people there don’t like her. The chairman of the Senate Military Committee has suggested the statue be altered to depict her in a skirt, but local officials say it’s not likely to happen.

A slave statue was commissioned by the Downtown Indianapolis Cultural Trail. Amid outcry, the project has been cancelled. African-American artist Fred Wilson was paid for the work he’d done on the statue up to that point and was told he can “finish his work if he chooses and display it wherever he wants.” But it won’t be on the cultural trail.

Closer to home, opponents of an eight-foot statue of Hall of Fame singer / songwriter Chuck Berry in St. Louis said he should not be honored because he is a “felon and not a friend of women.” Others said he is St. Louis’ “most famous musical native son, who through his music changed race relations and culture around the world.”

Charlie Parker was one of the most influential improvising soloists in jazz, a central figure in the evolution of bop in the 1940s. He was also an alcoholic and heroin addict, which eventually caused his death at 34 years of age.

In our own Hall of Famous Missourians, there are those who were afflicted by addiction, or viewed as racists, or had various extra-marital indiscretions. They were also long deceased by the time they were inducted.

Do I like Rush Limbaugh? No. There are those in our company who do, however, and I respect their right to do so. Do I give him credit for changing the face of talk radio in the United States? Absolutely.

I’m a white woman. It’s not up to me to say whether a certain statue should be offensive to the black community or Native Americans. Likewise, no man is qualified to say whether I should be offended by Limbaugh’s comments about sex, birth control, and women.

I am.

Deeply.

I resent him for saying it, I resent him for meaning it, and I resent that his statements perpetuate a sentiment among many that women are still second-class citizens in this country.

But I can’t dispute that Limbaugh is, in fact, a famous Missourian. And I can cover events like the unveiling of his bust for the Hall of Famous Missourians and write a straight story void of personal opinion — and did.

I can even appreciate him for keeping the conversation going, for making people’s blood boil, for stirring in them a passion about politics and social discourse that gives them the voice to speak up. However, House Speaker Steven Tilley squelched that voice, and he did it in the People’s House. No matter what race, color, creed or gender you are, that should infuriate you. You just got locked out of your own House. The House that you pay for.

Critics have blasted Tilley for holding the unveiling in quasi secret, not giving notice for the public to attend, and even locking the public galleries of the chamber. We, the press, were given 25 minutes’ notice. Some news organizations that cover the capitol but have newsrooms some distance away had no chance to cover the event. If Kermit Miller of KRCG-TV, Jefferson City, had not been standing at Tilley’s office door when Tilley and Limbaugh walked to the House chamber and asked if it was okay to video record the events, media cameras would not have been allowed on the House floor to cover the event.

Democrat legislators, not yet here early on a Monday, were given no notice at all.

I defer to News Director and Capitol Historian Bob Priddy to draw the line in the sand:

“It is never, ever, proper to close and lock the doors of the Missouri House of Representatives for a private function. Never.

“In 1924, a few days after the Capitol was dedicated, a private group held its state convention in the House chamber. The doors were locked, keeping outsiders away. But not for long. When Governor Arthur Hyde heard that the Ku Klux Klan was meeting in the House chamber and locking the doors, he ordered the doors unlocked and left open. The Klan didn’t like it but the doors of the People’s House stayed unlocked.

“We have covered events in the Missouri House of Representatives since 1967. The only times we recall the doors of the House being locked, and only selected people allowed in, have been for caucuses of House members. Speaker Tilley has unilaterally assumed the power to close the House for a personal event. Not even the Ku Klux Klan at a time when it was a powerful organization could get away with something like that.”

We don’t think that’s a right this state or this nation has bestowed upon the Speaker of the Missouri House.

The People’s House.

Your House.