Dip in the press pool hardly refreshing
In more than one way, each and every one of us was a victim of President Bill Clinton’s whirlwind weekend fund-raising extravaganza.The upper valley’s long-suffering motorists lost their usual Saturday respite from the Monday-through-Friday roundabout hell that is the defining feature of the Summer of `99 in Aspen.Highway 82 was closed in both directions from the Woody Creek turnoff all the way into town – for up to two hours according to some reports – while Clinton & Co. lingered a little longer than expected at the Feinstein camp above McLain Flats.Sheriff Bob Braudis lost his shot at a cush assignment as a presidential protector, when, in a typically candid Braudis moment, he wondered out loud why we the people of Pitkin County should have to subsidize the Democratic National Committee’s fund-raising activities.Then we learned that an anonymous donor will give an unspecified amount of money to a yet-to-be-named charity to help defray the costs of beefing up local law enforcement. So while one charity rolls around in its presidential windfall, city and county taxpayers still foot the bill – thousands of dollars – for the president’s visit, and law enforcement will still have less to spend on local needs.But hey, what’s one less cop on the streets compared to a cool million in the coffers of the Democratic National Committee?The biggest victim of all, however, was me.It should be a big deal for a small-town reporter to hang out with the big-time national reporters who regularly accompany the president and his entourage. But the idea of being shoved into a van and sped from mansion to mansion while Clinton rubbed the underbelly of Aspen’s elite to see what would trickle out wasn’t attractive at all.When my managing editor sat down on the other side of my cluttered desk and said that I was the guy he wanted on the biggest story of the weekend – a visit from the president – I began feeling sorry for myself.”Do I have to follow him around all weekend?” I whined.”I think so,” my editor said, feigning sympathy.I was sure the weekend would be a replay of those awful, grown-up Christmas parties I and every other kid from the middle class were dragged to against their will. First, we’re stuffed into some ridiculous green and red woolen costume; then we’re hustled into the back seat of the station wagon for the seemingly endless trip to our grandparents’ house; finally we’re left to stew in our own boredom, ignored amidst the goodwill and cheer that imbibes the adults as they slam down their sixth or seventh eggnogs.I was right.I joined the press pool at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at the Inn at Aspen.All of the hot shots from the Associated Press, Reuters, CBS Television, AP Radio and The Wall Street Journal were yucking it up. I just stood around and tried not to look too dorky.Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. Aspen Times photographer Dan Bayer and a couple of so-called colleagues from the Aspen Daily News were sitting around trying not to look dorky, too.At 9:30 a.m., a handler from the White House shoved us into vans that sped to a maintenance garage in Starwood, Aspen’s original gated community. Then we were told to get out of the vans and strip.Actually, we didn’t have to strip as long as we consented to a metal-detector sweep by a burly Secret Service agent, and let a dog sniff our bags for bombs or drugs or whatever. A couple of national reporters threw rocks at a deer that was unlucky enough to pass by, before we were finally told to get back into the vans and wait.After about 25 minutes, just as I’m beginning to feel I’ve gotten to know “Another Editor” from the Daily News a little too well, three state troopers and a couple of limos rip by. Our driver throws the van into gear and we’re off.After the president and first lady get safely into the party at Sen. Diane Feinstein’s pad, the press is herded into the garage and ignored. We literally have to beg for water and any information we can get about what’s going on. The water is given grudgingly, without ice; the information isn’t given at all.After a couple of reporters are caught outside the garage, we’re reminded of where we belong and a Secret Service agent is posted at the entrance.When the speaking portion of the “event” finally begins, two reporters, neither of whom is me, are escorted onto the lawn where they watch the president speak. The rest of us elbow our way around a small speaker and jockey for the best spot to place our miniature tape recorders .After the president finishes bashing the Republicans, our handlers hustle us out of the garage and tell us to wait in the driveway for the president to come out and share a word or two with the press.My courage to ask the tough question and even my interest in his presence had been bleached out by an hour of anticipation under the hot sun. At least there were chairs in the garage.So instead of writing down the president’s regrets about King Hassan’s passing, I stepped over to the Secret Service agent who had been keeping an eye on us for most of the morning and said, “You must have screwed up pretty bad to get a pathetic assignment like this – keeping an eye on the clowns in the press.””There is no bad assignment when it comes to protecting the president,” he replied with a stern face. “You’d better get in the van now, we’ll be leaving for the next event soon.”
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