- Special Projects
It just happened for the seventh consecutive year, so consider it a holiday tradition.
Some elite journalists flew to Oahu for the holidays, where they became tourists trapped aboard a hotel shuttle van.
In a Kailua driveway. At the Bellows Air Force Station beach in Waimanalo. Near a golf course or the gym at the Marine Corps base in Kaneohe. They sat and they sat.
Top national correspondents for news organizations such as the Washington Post, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal follow the president of the United States wherever he goes.
This is usually pretty interesting work, because Barack Obama is a well-traveled and very public figure who does interesting and important stuff. But when he comes to Hawaii for Christmas and New Year’s, as he has done every year since he was elected, he takes his vacation seriously.
“No public events scheduled” read the White House schedule for every one of the First Family’s 16 days on Oahu.
Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia stuck to that plan.
The lone exception arrived like a gift basket for news-starved journalists on Christmas Day, when the president and first lady visited troops and their families at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. On that occasion Obama said a few words within earshot of the press, his only official, out-loud utterance while on the island about what is being called the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Other than that, members of the White House Press Pool spent two weeks-plus dutifully noting where and when the president left his rented Kailua compound to work out, golf, bowl, play on the beach, visit friends and eat at restaurants.
And they could only be sure of that much because of White House emails, because even though their van was part of every presidential motorcade, they rarely got close enough to see anyone named Obama.
The van breaks away from the rest of the motorcade as it nears each destination, leaving one of the journalists aboard — designated on a rotating basis — to tap out scintillating email dispatches such as this one emailed by David Nakamura of the Washington Post on Dec. 21:
“At 10:18 a.m., Potus motorcade emerged from his compound and press van joined in at the rear. Pooler didn’t spot Potus in the presidential SUV. Motorcade traveled onto Kaneohe military base and press pulled into shopping center food court and motorcade continued. Potus is golfing on this cloudless day. WH says his golf partners are: Joe Paulsen, Preston Heard, Bobby Titcomb. Pool is holding in food court.”
These emails — more than 70 throughout the Oahu stay — tell of every coming and going and are sent to all news outlets that sign up to receive them.
Last Saturday night, Nakamura posted this plaintive message after pool members had waited two and half hours while the president and first lady dined at Nobu, a Japanese restaurant in Waikiki.
“Potus motorcade departed Nobu at 10:20 p.m. amid intermittent rain and gusts of wind. Onlookers at a hotel across the street watched from inside the foyer. Headed somewhere on this 15th hour of pool duty with nary a glimpse of Potus. Presumably back to Kailua.”
Nakamura still managed to be productive while on the island, writing a piece about how Hawaii loves its other favorite son, Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.
The Post’s White House reporter managed to extract a statement from the president praising the University of Oregon quarterback and noting he was a fan despite the fact that Mariota graduated from St. Louis School while Obama was an alum of rival Punahou.
New York Times correspondent Michael Schmidt was reduced to writing a speculative piece about the president’s golfing ability, relying mainly on a former playing partner who insisted on anonymity because he hopes to get invited along again sometime.
All this raises a question: Why do these national news organizations go to the trouble and expense of following — from a considerable distance — the First Vacationer?
Civil Beat’s Chad Blair gives this answer: “The White House travel press pool is essentially on presidential death watch. If something, heaven forbid, should happen to the president, the media have to be there to report the news.”
Blair has joined the pool as a local member during past presidential vacations, but there was little representation by members of the Hawaii media this time around. By now, they presumably know the gig all too well.
That didn’t stop me from signing up for a shift Saturday — with Civil Beat photographer Cory Lum — on the final day of Hawaii Presidential Vacation VII.
Lum had already photographed the Dec. 19 arrival of Air Force One, the Christmas Day troop visit, and the president finishing up on the 18th green on Dec. 30, the only day he golfed at the more publicly visible Mid Pacific Country Club in Kailua instead of the tightly controlled Marine base course.
But now we were in the traveling pool for the duration, boarding the shuttle at 9 a.m. outside the Manoa Surfrider, where the members of the national media were staying.
A long day of criss-crossing Oahu ensued.
The national media rents an opulent house in the same Kailua neighborhood as the presidential compound, but by agreement no one spends the night there.
That’s kind of a shame, because from its master bedroom “jungle shower” to its poolside tiki bar, the place is pretty cool. The prolific Mr. Nakamura even blogged about it for the Post in his ample spare time.
The Secret Service welcomed us to the neighborhood, scanning our persons and possessions before admitting us to the safe house. We had barely settled in when one of the White House press people told us we’d need to be back in the van in five minutes.
Twenty minutes after that, the motorcade passed our driveway and we wedged ourselves in near the back, behind a boxy special ambulance flown from the mainland and in front of the last of several black SUVs.
This was the fun part, because you can’t help but feel special as clusters of people wave and oncoming drivers roll down their windows and stretch out their cell phones to document the occasion.
True, we were in a 24-passenger van labeled “Gray Line Hawaii: Operated by Polynesian Adventure Tours,” but dammit, the traffic was being stopped for us, too. We were part of the presidential motorcade.
Until we weren’t.
After entering Bellows Air Force Station, we stopped while the rest of the vehicles motored toward the more secluded northern end of Waimanalo Bay. We were allowed to hang out on a more public stretch of coastline. If it had been a beach movie, it might’ve been called, “Where the President Ain’t.”
For the press pool veterans, it was all too familiar, and the pattern prevailed. On a second foray, we blew by the halted traffic (did I mention how fun that was?) all the way to Punchbowl Cemetery, where the president and his daughters visited his grandfather’s grave. Then it was on to Manoa to visit his half-sister.
Each time, we didn’t know where we were almost going until we almost got there, pulling out of the motorcade near its destination. Upon being stopped short, we got an email telling us what we were missing.
This was a bit more galling at our next stop back in Kailua: “The President and Sasha and Malia Obama are visiting friend Eddie Vedder and family.”
By then we had pulled into a nearby McDonald’s.
Back at the press house, the pool members spread out. One read a novel. Another napped. Several watched football on TV. Most focused on their laptops or cell phones.
Someone ordered pizza, but by the time it was delivered, we were told we had 15 minutes to eat before piling back into the van.
We had one more waiting game to play.
It may not always be this way, what with budgets shrinking in newsrooms everywhere.
Mindlessly tracking a vacationing president in far-off Hawaii is an expensive proposition for mainland news organizations. Already, some hire local stringers instead of sending their staffers. The White House can issue information and statements without national correspondents in the vicinity.
Barack Obama is very good at not making news when he escapes to Oahu, and it’s not hard to imagine the trend toward hiring local journalists to keep track of him becoming the norm.
But as I chatted with fellow pool members while the First Family took its sweet time dining at Buzz’s Original Steakhouse in Lanikai for its last vacation meal, it occurred to me that some good probably comes from this seeming farcical exercise.
Once a year, some of the nation’s foremost journalists get a taste of Hawaii while on the job and share it with their audiences. And the island charm isn’t lost on even the most hardened. Driving out of Kailua on one of Saturday’s journeys, pool members couldn’t keep their eyes off the partially cloud-shrouded Koolaus. When a rainbow emerged, there was a scramble to photograph it.