By FOX News Radio’s Rich Johnson, who traveled with President Obama as the Air Force One Pool Reporter on the President’s unannounced trip to Afghanistan:
“Be at the White House at 5 o’clock.”
Those were not the words I wanted to hear on a Sunday afternoon, even though I was “on call” as the radio network pool reporter. But my boss’ call at around 2 o’clock also contained this warning: “you might need to pack a bag.” That call kicked off a three-day whirlwind that took me halfway around the world and back.
Arriving at press secretary Jay Carney’s office at 5pm, I and the other pool reporters (wire services, newspaper, magazine, websites and TV) were told; The President is going to Afghanistan. After hashing out the details of the trip; to sign the Strategic Partnership Agreement, visit the troops, give a short speech, then back to the U.S., we got The Word: tell no one about this. We countered that we had to tell at least one boss or editor.
I told my boss, and we figured out how to keep it secure. I would call in sick on Monday afternoon. I actually took a long nap, cleaned up, and drove to a remote entrance of Joint Base Andrews, the home of Air Force One.
After being escorted to a parking lot far from the usual press lot, we were screened, our bags and equipment examined, and we turned in all of our communications devices: Blackberrys, iPhones, iPads, computers, etc. Then, onto a bus and a drive to the huge hanger at the south end of Andrews. AF1 was parked behind the hanger, instead of its usual boarding spot right in front of the terminal. This is a secret, after all.
On the plane, we took our usual seats at the back of the craft just forward of the galley. The press pool compartment holds 13 nice comfy first-class seats in a room that’s slightly larger than most apartment living rooms. It has a dedicated bathroom, and the veteran poolers know to make friends with the flight attendants. There is a selection of movies On Demand, and on domestic flights we can watch live satellite TV – a legacy of 9/11, when the Presidential aircraft was at the mercy of terrestrial TV.
The major down-side is that we can’t leave that room for the entire flight. Once in a while there are briefings en route, but usually the Press Secretary just comes back and we crowd around the front seats. Also, leaving isn’t much of an option, as the compartment immediately forward is filled with Secret Service agents.
Our flight, all 13 hours of, also happened with window shades down – a good idea for sleep as we were flying mostly in daylight. After movies, research, lots of fitful sleep and a nice snack (remember the galley right behind?), it was time for serious work: a background briefing from two Senior White House officials — household names (if your household is inside The Beltway), but not to be identified.
We got a peek at the nuts and bolts of the deal, an explanation of the timing (coincidence that it’s happening on the Usama Bin-Laden death anniversary) and some thoughts on whether or not it will work.
We also got a briefing on what to expect upon landing; a quick shot of the President being greeted by Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the Commander of Bagram Air Field, then a run to the helicopter taking us to the Imperial Palace in Kabul.
The copter is a troop carrier with an open back end. Usually, these rides feature the pilot, co-pilot, a loadmaster and a couple of side observers. On this machine, the side observers were also side gunners – keeping their night-vision goggles handy and their hands close to the big guns mounted fore and aft, port and starboard.
We were given ear plugs (a necessity) and body armor (maybe not a necessity, but also not an option). After a 20-minute ride in total darkness and a three minute ride in vans, we arrived at the Imperial Palace.
The signing ceremony was short and to the point. Both Presidents thanked the other for making the day happen. After the signatures, handshakes and applause, it was back to the vans, and back to the copters.
We arrived back at Bagram and walked quickly to a huge hanger filled with maybe 2,000 servicemen and women. They got a 10-minute pep talk from the President, followed by handshakes, pictures and autographs for anyone who wanted them. The President spent at least 45 minutes in that crowd – something I’ve never seen him do with any other audience. But then, this wasn’t just any audience.
As the crowd thinned and the President departed that hanger, we pool reporters got busy filing our stories. President Obama spent the time visiting wounded warriors at Bagram’s hospital. He also spoke live on Armed Forces Radio to the U.S. outposts all over Afghanistan.
I came home with one fewer item of clothing, but it’s OK. A soldier yelled ‘Go Ducks’ when he saw the bright yellow ‘O’ on my hat. It was a bit sweaty, but I took it off and tossed it to Tech Sgt. Derrick Morris of Bend, Oregon.
Since we had to leave immediately after the speech, there was no time to file radio reports using the sound from the speech. Fortunately, the White House provided an advance copy of the text. I found the quotes I wanted to use in four separate radio reports – pretty much saying the same thing each time, but in a slightly different manner.
I wrote what we call ‘donuts’ – a script written around a certain quote (known in TV as a ‘sound bite,’ known in radio as an ‘actuality’). I would feed my part of the stories to Fox News Radio HQ in New York, and editors there would insert the actualities to make the complete stories. The danger in doing it that way is when the speaker deviates severely from the prepared remarks (what former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers referred to as a ‘textual deviant’). Fortunately, on this night, President Obama had stuck very close to the script.
Back to the ‘pool’ part of my job. I was the only radio reporter on Air Force One, so all of my stories were offered up to the other radio networks that contribute reporters to pool duty on other days: ABC, CBS, AURN, NPR, Voice of America, Salem and Sirius/XM. Those networks were free to use my voice on their programs for that day. It’s the same story for the ABC TV crew on this trip. Their pictures appeared on all the TV networks.
Just as the sun began to rise, we were back on the plane for the long flight home, with a quick 30-minute refueling stop in Germany. That was where we fired up our iPhones and got some sobering news: An attack in Kabul about two hours after our departure killed at least half a dozen people.
Nobody gave us any formal briefings on the trip home, but we got a surprise about two hours before landing: President Obama delivering a small birthday cake to an AP reporter on the trip. The President hung around for a few minutes exchanging pleasantries, but making no news.
We arrived back at Andrews about two hours early – early enough to hear my own reports on the radio as I drove home.
When I was still on the White House beat, I was the radio pooler for President Obama’s first trip to Iraq in April of 2009; a poorly-kept secret among the press covering his first major overseas trip. That was a thrill, and so was this; especially the responsibility of keeping that secret for 24 hours before we took off.
Covering the Congress, White House, Supreme Court and other agencies here in the nation’s capital is always a combination of thrilling and daunting. And being the pool reporter on a huge story always contains a big dose of ‘don’t screw up’ anxiety. So it was especially gratifying to fire up the iPhone upon landing and find notes from colleagues at other networks commenting on my work.
Just when you get used to yet another day at the office, this job can kick you in the butt and remind you that ‘the office’ can end up being anywhere in the world. And every now and then, you get a seat in the front row to witness history.
LISTEN to some of Rich Johnson’s reporting from Afghanistan: