He came. We saw (kind of). He left. For one hour and 15 minutes, Building 12 of the OC Fairgrounds, which normally houses things like Sugar Plum craft festivals and ShamWow demo booths, turned into the Church of Obama--those lucky enough to get tickets were fanning themselves with fliers, napkins and whatever else they could find in purses and on floors. Shouts of "mmmm-hmm" and "that's right!" punctuated the crowded town-hall style meeting; loud cheers, standing ovations and "I love you!"s weren't so uncommon either.
Local press--that's us--were immediately corralled in a 25' x 80' closed-off section behind giant rafters housing CNN and company, leaving us nothing but a view of (sweaty) asses and ankles. Some maneuvering, a fire marshal and a squirrely lookin' Secret Service guy later, we ended up with not much more than a glimpse at Barry's forehead. Enjoy our illustrated behind (behind) the scenes look at life near the president when you're an alt-weekly reporter.
The only protest contingent we saw: Barbara Coe and a sorry showing of her usual CCIR cabal.
There were almost as many news vans for Obama as there were parked outside Octo-Mom's house in La Habra the other night.
It was definitely a good day to be a photographer and a shitty day to be a (local) print journalist. Once we made it past a few checkpoints we walked into Building 12 and saw a bleacher full of legs and asses: the photographers' section. Our section, we were told, was behind the butts, miles behind the rows of chairs for ticket holders and with no view of the podium where Obama was set to give his economic-meltdown sermon. The security guys didn't go for our tiny digital Canons as legit enough for a spot on the rafters with the other photographers.
The view for local press. We noticed that certain journalists with the same little green badges we had were being allowed past the bleachers into what seemed like a reporters' VIP area. We asked the tall, young, sweaty dude standing guard if we could go past. He took one, then a second look at our passes: "Where are you from again? Oh, OC Weekly? Yeah, no, no we can't do that." WTF?
What did Obama say? you ask. What color was his tie? Were his ears that big? We don't know!
Positive that the Register and the LA Times had been given plum seats in the VIP press area, we pressed a few official-looking types until we were finally told by the short, sweaty woman in charge that the White House had decided who would sit in the VIP and who wouldn't. "I don't know how it was decided, but they made that decision," she said before asking not to be quoted. (We later heard that only "traveling press" who we saw munching on treats from a catered buffet before Obama arrived, were the ones being allowed in the VIP area. Vickie: "Those are the real journalists.")
But as soon as Barry took the stage, and the chanting and "I love you!"s rang out, security became surprisingly lax (we hope we were being watched by some plain-clothes Secret Service agent, for Obama's sake). We went to one side of the rafters and squeezed our way closer, catching above-the-waist glimpses of Barry--who looked fit and a little surreal, like he was on a giant TV screen--not long before he wrapped up his pre-packaged speech and announced it was hot in there (to cheers) and that he'd be taking his jacket off (cheers become squeals). When he peeled off his jacket, the Church of Obama became a strip bar for a good long second before Barry hushed the crowd down again and opened it up to questions.
We caught a few before the run-in with the fire marshal:
The fire marshal then started clearing us out of the small space we had managed to squeeze ourselves in--whether or not we could see the President's head depended on which way some bespectacled man in a white collared shirt decided to turn his head. After the fire marshal scooted us back, a man with the Secret Service (curly ear piece and all) informed us rather apologetically we had to go back to our pen. No problem. This time, we went to the right of the rafters instead and walked right into the VIP area we'd been banned from earlier. No one noticed us, no one asked anything, no one cared. We noticed that our local media friends (Bill Goodwin, Yvette Cabrera, from the OCR) had also pulled the same stunt: media sneaking into VIP media's territory. What an embarrassing day for us local dinks.
After the meeting had broken up and Obama had made his rounds shaking hands and greeting the crowd, we came across a shrieking Arleen Ramos, 26, and Megan Mortensen, 22, both USC grad students. The two had waited 16 hours for their tickets and didn't regret it a bit: "It was so worth it!" said a smiling Ramos, clutching her digital camera. "I got a picture of him touching my hand! It's going up on Facebook tonight."
Mortensen, with an equally huge smile, shared that she had shaken Obama's hand. "We're on Spring Break," she explained, "We were both like, 'This is the best Spring Break ever!'" Mortensen paused and then said, "Which, I think, actually says something about us."
"No, no!," Ramos interjected. "It's a part of history! It's something to tell your grandkids."
We ran into local elected officials John Palacio, Jose Solorio and Arturo Montez, a Buena Park school trustee who was miffed because the local Democratic party volunteers, he said, had only handed out tickets to a select few, "excluding a lot of local minority officials." If he would have been picked by Obama, he would have asked about the stimulus package, he said, because he's worried about entrusting millions to California's state government. "I'm trying to keep jobs for my people." Palacio, with two cameras slung around his neck, also had his hand raised, but wasn't picked. "I was going to ask about what they're going to do to ensure that money earmarked for education reaches the classroom as opposed to allowing districts to use it to balance their budgets," he said. But he seemed happy enough to have been able to watch the president up close and snap some photos from his fourth-row seat (maybe he'll e-mail us some?)
We met Jennifer Robinson (pictured on the far right in the bedazzled Obama Tee), 58, of Cerritos, also after the event was over, as she was clutching a small stack of newspapers in hopes of an autograph. Robinson had waited since 10:30 p.m. Monday for her tickets. She said that her friends arrived at the fairgrounds at 5 a.m. this morning. "It was well worth the wait!" she said.
Robinson, a recently laid-off sales manager, went on to explain that the tickets were a birthday present to her friend Rodney Morgan (pictured farthest left), but she was most excited that her terminally ill friend Bessie got the rare opportunity to shake Obama's hand. "We'll never get to experience something like this again," she said, smiling. "It's an experience of a lifetime.
By the time we made it to the stage, it was already a little too late: