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Fear and boredom on Obama's trail

Waiting (and waiting) for the president-elect, a pool reporter learns how not to drive near a Secret Service SUV.

November 07, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter | Huffstutter is a Times staff writer.

CHICAGO — I saw the president-elect on Thursday -- six different times, for a total of 71 seconds.

We didn't speak, but he did grin and wave at me.

At least I think it was at me. It could have been the Secret Service agents standing behind me, all toting automatic rifles, who are a constant and imposing presence around Barack Obama. Or someone else in the group of 11 reporters and photographers, huddled together near the motorcade's black SUVs, who on this day make up Obama's "protective press pool."

From 6:30 a.m. (when I joined a crew of reporters in the van) to 5:59 p.m. (when we pulled up outside Chicago's Fairmont hotel), my duty was to jot down anything of interest and fire it off on my BlackBerry to other reporters.

No tidbit was considered too small or too vague: "As of 7:27 a.m., there is no press conference or briefing scheduled for today. (However, this may change.)"

When Obama arrived at a gym, the photographers jumped out of the van to snap pictures.

When he slipped back into an SUV to go home and get changed before a security briefing at the local FBI offices, the photographers had to dodge dozens of people intent on snapping their own shots with their cellphone cameras.

I wrote: "The president-elect left the gym wearing a black zip-up jacket, a gray T-shirt, black gym pants, white/striped tennis shoes, a black Sox (go Sox!) baseball cap and sunglasses."

We drove. We sat. And we waited: Out on the street as Obama's motorcade drove into a secure entrance far from our prying eyes. On an underground ramp as he walked into an office building. In a hotel conference room as he had meetings and took calls and made decisions.

We drove some more. We sat. We waited.

Some of the Windy City's motorists, it became clear, did not seem to understand that A) the Chicago Police Department car that trails the president-elect's motorcade is serious about having traffic pull over when the officers inside flash the lights and hit the sirens, and B) it's not a great idea to cut in front of a black SUV filled with heavily armed Secret Service agents.

When the motorcade pulled off a highway and onto city streets, a couple in a tan sedan tried to drive around the motorcade.

The Secret Service agents cut the car off immediately and aimed their weapons at its occupants. The driver slammed on the brakes, and he and his stunned passenger threw their hands into the air. Then, the driver appeared to understand what was happening. ("Your pool reporter could see him mouth 'Obama.' ")

When Obama would walk to and from his vehicle, no one yelled out questions. Some reporters who have covered the campaign for months say they learned that it often didn't pay to shout out a question.

What sort of answer could you get from such a rude delivery? A monosyllabic one, it turned out. When Obama was leaving a downtown high-rise, I asked -- loudly -- how his meetings went.

"Good," he said, before slipping into an SUV and heading home.


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