You'll never starve traveling with the White House press corps.
That was lesson No. 1 learned on a recent trip covering the president.
The destination was Kansas City, Mo., with a 6: 45 a.m. check-in at Andrews Air Force Base. Having left the apartment on an empty stomach, the biggest worry was not how to get to the base (the cabbie had not a clue), but whether there was going to be breakfast on the flight.
A needless worry, it turned out.
Service began before the press plane, a Delta Boeing 737, even took off, and included choice of bagel, muffin, or danish. Coffee and juice, too, of course. Bottled water followed.
Once in the air, the real breakfast arrived: a choice of omelette or French toast, accompanied by a hefty cut of sausage, potatoes, fresh fruit, cornflakes, and yogurt. More juice, more coffee, and more pastries.
But it wasn't over yet. Obviously, the White House wants no grumpy reporters on board - and (even though the press is footing the bill) it clearly operates on the assumption that food equals contentment.
So, another round started: A basket full of bananas and apples, as well as an assortment of cheese and crackers. I thought of my mother's advice to "always pack a snack" in case of travel emergencies, and deposited a mini-gouda and crackers in my purse. (Two days later, the squashed cheese was discovered at the bottom of the bag).
Like an assembly line, the flight attendants kept coming. Next up: king-size candy bars and Wrigley's chewing gum. My sixth grade favorites - Butterfingers, Snickers, Kit Kat, and Reese's (What no M&Ms?) - tempted the eyes, but the stomach wasn't interested. With adult sensibility, I declined.
Even after landing, the flight attendants kept at it. As I exited, one pointed to a cardboard box stuffed with potato chips: "A snack for the road?"
ONCE at our destination - a gymnasium turned town hall for a forum on Social Security reform - it was a feed-fest of a different sort.
When the president's on the road, pushing a favorite theme (like the one this week in Houston on racism in sports), the White House practically spoon feeds the event to the press. It's all "served" in the exclusive White House press corps "filing room," a workroom filled with orderly rows of tables, chairs, and phones - the rest of the press gets a stripped-down version.
In the filing room, the event is piped in live on closed-circuit television monitors. Texts of the president's speech are stacked high. During the lunch break, high-ranking members of the administration are sent up and made available for any questions. They mill about until everyone is done.
It's not necessary to leave this spin bubble and go to the event itself - unless of course you want to talk to real, live Americans who are taking part in the forum.
In fairness, there are good reasons why much of the press stays in the bubble. Broadcast and wire reporters are busy filing throughout the day. Most others are on a tight deadline and need the easy accessibility of officials and information. In this case, reporters traveling with the president had two hours to write and send their stories before they were whisked off to the airport for the next destination.
And, when your mandate from editors back home is to get at what the president said and what it means, the urgency to spend a lot of time talking with audience participants is greatly reduced.
On the other hand, if your mandate is to find out how the president's playing in Peoria, or rather, Kansas City, it's awfully nice to have about 600 Americans all to yourself.