Backstory: All the news that's fit to observe

On White House pool duty, reporters can witness history, but usually it's about biking and body language.

Once a month, like clockwork, the e-mail appears in every White House reporter's inbox: the in-town "pool" rotation. For each newspaper, that's our monthly invitation to grab a ringside seat on the president's day - or at least those portions of his day in which he will tolerate a jostling scrum of about 13 reporters, photographers, and TV techies tracking his every move and utterance.

For us daily printies, the rules are clear. At any "pool only" event, you alone represent the newspaper corps and must share your observations in a report. The point is to share the burden, or the wealth, of a task that can be an exercise in near-futility - or a chance to watch history in the making. Helen Thomas, who covered the White House for United Press International for nearly 40 years, recalls how her boss, Merriman Smith, rode in the third car in President Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas on that fateful day in November 1963. Mr. Smith won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage.

In more recent times, my Monitor colleague Francine Kiefer had White House pool duty two days after 9/11 - and was ushered into the Oval Office with the rest of the pool. "Mr. President," she asked, "could you give us a sense as to what kind of prayers you are thinking and where your heart is, for yourself, as you..."

"Well, I don't think about myself right now," Mr. Bush began. "I think about the families, the children." His eyes filled with tears.

After 3-1/2 years on the White House beat, I have yet to hit that kind of historic moment. Usually, in fact, in-town pool duty is more a test of my observational skills than anything else: Does the president's body language or tone of voice betray anything? Who else is in the room and why? Is actual news taking place? The typical report chronicles the workaday dealings of the president, such as comments to reporters after a closed cabinet meeting, spiced with dashes of humor and, one hopes, a telling detail or two.

"Often, pool duty is a lot of sitting in vans and standing outside the Oval," sums up Julie Mason, a White House correspondent for the Houston Chronicle.

Still, some pool assignments do carry the potential for fuller interaction with the president - an opportunity that no reporter can refuse, especially given this White House's press-shy approach. If the president himself is unavailable, "sometimes you talk to his friends who are in his part of the motorcade, or members of Congress," says Ed Chen, who covered the White House for seven years for The Los Angeles Times. "If you really put your mind to it, you can pick up stuff most of the time."

On my latest pool day, April 17, the president traveled by motorcade to Sterling, Va., for a tour of a stone countertop company and a roundtable discussion on the economy and taxes. During most of the proceedings, the pool was held away from the action - except for this reporter. Just before the roundtable began, a press aide told me I could observe the session, and he showed me to a seat off to the side, near the newly minted chief of staff, Josh Bolten.

Bush was relaxed and upbeat, declaring the small-business sector "vibrant" and drawing out the employees of Europa Stone Distributors and guests on their careers. At one point, the president invited Treasury Secretary John Snow in on the discussion. Mr. Snow started rhapsodizing about the economy, when Bush interrupted him: "By the way, he has a PhD!" It was one of those moments that showed the president's waggish side.

After a half hour, the rest of the pool was invited in for a presidential statement, but Bush took no questions. What did this pooler glean from the experience? A glimpse of Bush in action - though I wasn't quite a fly on the wall. He smiled at me on my way out, a sign he was aware of my presence.

Ms. Mason loves it when foreign leaders visit, their hometown press corps in tow. "The St. Patrick's Day pool was one of the most fun I've ever had," she says. "The White House press corps can be a little moribund, and here come these Irish reporters with their corsages and they're all chatty, and here was [Prime Minister] Bertie Ahern. It was a hoot and a holler in the Roosevelt Room."

Then there was the incident last June when Bush welcomed the South Korean president to the Oval Office. After their meeting, when the pool was ushered in, some Korean sound men decided to avail themselves of the empty couch near Bush, lying down across it and extending their boom mikes. According to the pool report, the scene was "apparently upsetting [to] Bush's sense of decorum."

"The president hates it when we touch the furniture," says Mason. Bush is also famous for glaring when a cellphone rings, or for razzing a reporter when his tie is askew.

Some pool experiences entail no presidential sighting at all. On a typical Saturday, when Bush is in town, the pool gets summoned to ride in the motorcade out to the suburbs for a presidential bike ride. When we arrive, the pool is left standing - literally - at the entrance to the park. No bathrooms, no water, no senior administration officials to chat up. Those pool reports are best rendered in a crisp shorthand: "President went bike-riding. Motorcade there and back uneventful."

Riding in a motorcade itself can be entertaining, especially to those of us used to stopping for red lights - though the winding, pedal-to-the-floor drive out to Camp David in rural Maryland can leave one feeling a bit green around the gills.

On Sundays, Bush often attends St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House, which is another staple of pool duty. "I think you see so many good pool reports from church - there are spoken words," says Ken Bazinet, White House reporter for the New York Daily News. "The ministers are wonderful; they like to send messages to the president."

After church, Bush often goes bike-riding, effecting such a speedy costume change that reporters wonder if he's wearing his biking clothes under his suit. Some pool reports have commented on a certain "bulkiness" about him on church-and-bike days.

White House pool veterans look back on presidents past with some nostalgia - and consternation. Traveling across the country with Bill Clinton on Air Force One, the pool could almost bank on seeing him (except during impeachment). The access was great, says Bazinet, but there were times when he would go on and on, and "all I wanted to do was watch the movie."

Ms. Thomas, now a columnist for Hearst newspapers, says of all the presidents she covered, Lyndon Johnson was the most interesting to watch. "It was a three-ring circus," she says. Johnson had a love-hate relationship with the press, but he was a talker. "He was a people man, and sometimes reporters became people if nobody else was around," she says. "So he always wanted to talk and unload - all off the record, of course - but you got real insights into who he was, what he was, what was bothering him, especially during Vietnam."

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