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Travels With POTUS

(AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)
The President of the United States, or POTUS as he's known to the members of the press, is followed on trips domestic and abroad by the ever-present shadow of the travel pool. The responsibility is split between the five networks – CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, FOX – and on every fifth day, CBS is charged with travel pool duty. "On that day I am no longer working for CBS unilaterally," said CBS News producer Jeff Goldman, who handles pool responsibilities for most presidential trips for the network, "I am working on behalf of all five networks." That means nothing is proprietary – he's providing information for everyone.

For Goldman, that means his Blackberry is a veritable umbilical cord. It is vital and he is attached. Even the beloved berry, however, has its limits. On the Saturday before the midterm elections, Goldman was in Englewood, Colo., where President Bush was going to record a live Saturday radio address in a local coffee shop. About 30 seconds before the address was set to go live, Goldman was thumbing away at his Blackberry. Suddenly, a secret service agent accidentally knocked into him, launching the Blackberry, very unfortunately, into a nearby trash bin. Desperate to communicate with the other networks, "I fished the Blackberry out, covered with mocha latte," said Goldman. "And it kept on ticking."

"Everybody – correspondents, producers, show producers, senior producers -- want to know what's going on. It's a way to inform all the networks – and every working part of their news operations -- where the president is at any given moment," said Goldman.

He, or anyone else managing the travel pool at any time, is constantly reporting movements – who is on Air Force One, when is it leaving, when is it arriving, what happened during the onboard briefing. Then there are the events along the way – photo ops, bilateral meetings, shots of the president arriving at Downing Street.

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For example, when the President left a restaurant in Ho Chi Min City last week with the First Lady, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and his wife, Goldman sent and e-mail to interested parties describing the footage that was going to be available to them, using traditional Blackberryspeak -- "Pool has just shot POTUS leaving 'Tib' Restaurant" -- as well as any quick details -- "When asked about dinner POTUS said 'good.' PM Howard said 'very nice.'"

No, it wasn't groundbreaking news, but the pool needs to be present everywhere the president is. "One always follows the president wherever [he goes] for the 'what if' situation," says Goldman. "Some might call it a 'body watch'" he adds, but more often, the travel pool is there so that the president can respond "at a moment's notice" to any breaking news from around the world.

For example, on the way back from last week's trip, the president had breakfast with troops at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu. "There was no news out of that event," said Goldman, "but simultaneously, word came from Lebanon that one of their government officials, Pierre Gemayel, was assassinated. Therefore it gives the president the opportunity to respond to that [news] to the travel pool, which he did."

For the most part, though, "There's a reluctance on the part of the White House for the president to receive questions unless it's on their terms and they're prepared to take questions," said Goldman. In previous administrations, he says, the president would be asked questions at the conclusion of a photo op routinely, and would either take the question or ignore it. "In this administration there's a tendency to rebuff the attempts of people asking questions -- respectfully and politely -- at the end of a photo op unless it's been pre-planned."

"I've been doing this off and on for several administrations," said Goldman, "and the access is the tightest with this administration that I have experienced in terms of freely being able to ask questions of the president at each public event."

On a trip to Moscow a few years ago, Bush visited Russian President Vladimir Putin at a time when U.S.-Russian relations were thought to be strained. "The photo op was very controlled," said Goldman, "and along with my colleagues, it was decided that I should frame a question to Bush that he would have to respond to – one that would allay concerns about the U.S.- Russian relations. The question was 'Mr. President, do you still trust President Putin?' It was asked in absolute silence about four feet away from the president while he was seated … so there was no mistaking his hearing the question. And it was met with glares from both Putin and Bush. And no comments were uttered. But when I was leaving the room with the other members of the press, Bush looked over at me with a smile on his face and a wink in his eye, exclaiming, 'Nice try,' to which he and Putin chuckled."

Positions like that one are intimidating, says Goldman, but "you get used to it over time." There's also a strategy to keep in mind. "You have to ask the question without interrupting the president and his guest, but while the camera is still fixated on the president and you're not moving." And the question needs to be short enough to generate a potentially quick response before the travel pool is ushered out of the room.

Following the Blackberry-Mocha Latte incident, Goldman asked Bush about calls for Secretary Rumsfeld's resignation that were being made at the time by the editorial boards of several military newspapers. "I was yanked physically [by two White House staffers] as soon as I attempted to ask the question." This was a few days before it was announced that Rumsfeld was leaving the post. "It was a sensitive question to ask at that point. He would not take the question."

In general, says Goldman, the travel pool's access is "carefully controlled by the White House." Some events – when the president meets with families of fallen soldiers, for example -- are closed to the press. Other meetings are restricted to still photographers. The White House is particularly sensitive about microphones on TV cameras that may pick up any ad hoc conversations between the president and the people with whom he's meeting. Indeed, we're all familiar with the brouhaha that ensued after a microphone (it didn't belong to any American television networks) picked up an impromptu private conversation between Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. It might end up being one of the more famous of unscripted presidential moments.

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