r-daub-a-blog, May 28, 2007

13 DECEMBER 2005

I am having one of those ‘life is funny’ moments. Two months ago I was working a freelance assignment for a very local weekly newspaper covering a two-hour holiday cooking lesson for the Women’s Fellowship of a Methodist church in Carroll County, Maryland, and this morning I am on my way to spend the morning in the White House press pool and get within arm’s reach of the President of the United States.

Granted, an appearance by George W. Bush pushing the new Medicare ‘Part D’ plan at a retirement community in Springfield, Virginia is hardly a noteworthy appearance for him, especially considering that hell has broken loose in several parts of the world, but, for me, being part of the White House press pool for a couple of hours is a long, long way from sitting in a church basement with a room full of overweight women giggling with glee over the prospect of sampling brie en croute and pumpkin ginger cheesecake.

It is bitterly cold this morning, fifteen degrees according to the guy on one of the local NPR stations I was listening to a little while ago while sitting in some of that famous Beltway traffic. There is a small line of cars at the gate of the retirement community when I get there, and when I pull up to the booth the woman inside instructs me to park in the garage and gives me some rather confusing directions about how to get there. There is a Secret Service guy squeezed in there with her, but he doesn’t look robotically mean like they do on TV and in the movies, and he isn’t wearing those goofy highway patrolman sunglasses. In fact, he looks like a rather friendly fellow, never mind that he has been trained to put one in your back without a second thought if he perceives you as a threat to our nation’s fearless leader.

In the garage I find an open space right away, but outside there are no signs pointing me to the building where I am to report. It is too cold to wander around trying to find it myself, so I duck into the first building I encounter, which turns out to be one of the residence halls.

There is a woman sitting behind the reception desk and I ask her where the building is. Before she has a chance to respond, however, a very disheveled old man who looks to be in his nineties (at least) wearing a bathrobe over his pajamas and leaning on a metal cane appears out of nowhere and says very loudly, “You can’t go up there! It’s all blocked off!” Most of his teeth are missing.

“I know,” I say with a smile. “I’m supposed to report there. I’m a reporter.”

“Who do you work for?” he says, raising an eyebrow and taking a step closer.

The receptionist is smiling in a way that seems to indicate that she is familiar with this gentleman’s mannerisms and is somewhat amused by the look of concern on my face. Without acknowledging the old man, she gives me the directions and I thank her.

As I’m walking out the door, the man calls after me, “They’re not going to let you in there! You’ll see!”

After walking about a half-mile in the bitter winter wind, I spot a car that is obviously either an unmarked police car or a Secret Service vehicle parked sideways in front of the parking lot as if to prevent any cars from getting in. Seeing no one else around, I start feeling a little uneasy and become concerned that someone wearing a dark suit is going to jump out of the bushes and ask me what I’m doing here. Rather than allowing these bullies to use their intimidation tactics on an innocent journalist such as myself, however, I decide to show him that I am not intimidated and go right up to the car and rap on the passenger side window.

The car is running, and behind the wheel is a man wearing a dark suit with a little star button pinned to the lapel. At first he doesn’t roll down the window, and during that long moment I become fearful that I am about to be blindsided and taken away in a van. Finally, though, the window rolls down as if it is doing so of its own will, but the man says nothing. I explain that I am a reporter and ask him if this is the building where I am supposed to report, and he loudly enunciates “yes.” With that the window rolls back up, and I walk away confidently knowing that no one is going to intimidate this reporter today.

I am expecting to be stopped and thoroughly searched before entering the building, but to my surprise the doors slide right open at my approach and I walk in without getting as much as a second look. I’m not sure where to go from here, so I keep walking right past the reception desk to make it look like I know where I’m going until I notice some guy up ahead waving and calling my name.

The guy turns out to be my point of contact, a PR guy employed by the retirement community who looks a bit like George Costanza, and he introduces me to the photographer and the camerawoman for the community’s closed-circuit television station. The photographer is going to be taking the photos that will run with the article, but, as per my usual procedure, I brought my own cheap little digital camera just in case I see something that the photographer doesn’t notice, which happens more often than not.

A couple of minutes later a young woman comes over and hands us little orange and white aluminum buttons that say ‘R-0’ on them that she explains have to be worn at all times because these are the official badges that will give us access. I had been expecting some bulky thing that I would have to wear around my neck like a backstage pass, but this cheap little thing looks like a toy. They are designed to be bent over your shirt pocket or collar, which sounds easy enough but turns out to be a surprisingly complicated task. She warns us to be careful because they fall off easily and we won’t be able to get another one if we lose it and suggests that we bend them sideways, but this only seems to make them less secure.

George Costanza then goes over the agenda and informs us that at 9:30 downstairs in the conference room, Dr. Mark McClellan, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), will be speaking to an audience of about 150 or so residents. Then at 10:00, President Bush will arrive and will have a small roundtable discussion with a residents, a health care employee from the community, a CMS counselor, and Dr. McClellan. One of the state senators and a congressman will also be on hand, but they apparently will not be sitting at the table. When this is over, the president will then go downstairs to the conference room for a meet-and-greet with the other 150 residents.

The lobby is crowded with Secret Service people and a K-9 unit of bomb sniffing dogs who apparently had to sniff all the food that will be served down in the conference room. A few minutes after giving us the agenda, George Costanza tells us to head downstairs, where we encounter the security checkpoint I had been expecting earlier. It is set up just like the airport with several men and women wearing uniforms that look very similar to TSA garb except that they have more official looking badges sewn to their sleeves. They take my backpack and ask about my digital camera, and I have nothing more to offer than, “Yes, it is a digital camera,” which surprisingly turns out to be a satisfactory answer. I am then instructed to walk through the metal detector, and, forgetting to take off my belt, the buckle sets it off and I am subjected to the magic wand and finally cleared.

Inside the conference room there is a Frank Sinatra Christmas song playing rather loudly, and there are two cheap-looking canopies like you’d find at a municipal park picnic with the ‘Rx’ prescription symbol and the phrase HELP IS HERE printed on the flaps. There are also several computer stations with CMS counselors seated at them ready and willing to help, but so far there are only a few residents on hand and they seem more interested in the generous spread of bagels, muffins, doughnuts, pots of coffee, and orange juice.

Since I would rather wait until after the president leaves before I start collecting statements from the residents, I take some pictures of the room and try not to get in the way of people wandering in trying to find seats. Eventually I head over to a corner behind the last row where the camerawoman has set up her tripod. This is a good location because no one will try to get through this way and I can just observe the residents, which turns out to be more entertaining than I thought it would be. One gentleman in particular catches my attention, a short, stocky white-haired guy wearing a white T-shirt that says ‘I Like Bush’ with an image of the president’s face superimposed over an American flag. The T-shirt itself is being worn over a ratty black sweater tucked into a pair of black sweatpants, and he is wearing jogging shoes with holes in them. The T-shirt is one thing, but what’s up with the sweatpants and jogging shoes? Whether you like George W. Bush or not (and this guy apparently does), the man is the President of the United States—at least put on some slacks and loafers.

I overhear one of the CMS counselors exclaim with pleasant surprise that these seniors are well-informed because no one is asking for help or advice, and I can’t help thinking that this woman is delusional if she thinks any of these seniors are really there looking for advice. I learn from the camerawoman that the community has been having information sessions for weeks now, including a supposedly very good one hosted by the AARP that explained ‘Part D’ in full detail. The concept isn’t really very difficult to understand—you just have to pick a plan—but the confusion lies in the sheer number of plans being offered, each providing something different. Simply finding the one that will cover the right combination of medications and services for each individual is almost as daunting a task in trying to figure out how to use the website that is designed to narrow your choices based on the information you provide.

It turns out, though, that the reason these residents aren’t in as much of a panic as most other seniors is that most of these people are retired government employees who already have far superior insurance plans than anything Medicare is offering, so they don’t even have to bother with this ‘Part D’ business. These people are merely here to catch a glimpse of the President of the United States so they can tell their grandkids about it, and, even more important, make their neighbors at the retirement community jealous by bragging to them that they were there.

The seats fill quickly, and ‘I Like Bush’, who seems to be alone and unsuccessfully attempting to glom onto ongoing conversations, eventually wanders over and spies an empty seat right in front of where I am standing. In this particular row there are only five seats, and there is a couple seated at each end so that the only available seat is the one in the middle. For a moment he ponders his next move, and the woman seated to the right of the empty seat notices this and gives him a look that very clearly says, “Don’t even try it.” It is a tight squeeze, and his stocky frame would make it difficult for him to slide in like you would at a movie theatre, much less attempt the impossible feat of climbing over the back of the vacant seat.

Finally he gives up and walks away, so I think, but a couple of minutes later he comes back with a doughnut that he offers to the ‘Don’t even try it’ woman. Her face suddenly lights up as if it was the president himself making such a gracious offer, so she turns to the man seated next to her and instructs him to get up so they can let him in. After a mild grumble of protest, the man gets up and lets him in.

A few minutes later the CEO of the retirement company introduces Dr. McClellan, who talks a little bit about the forty year history of Medicare and how it is not something you need when you get sick, but that, until now, the important and expensive element of prescription drug coverage was left out. After about two minutes of this gibberish the crowd is already getting restless—they’re not here for this guy, they’re here for Bush.

McLellan addresses the crowd

The guy sitting at the other end of the row from the guy who let the ‘I Like Bush’ guy in decides that this would be a good time to get a cup of coffee, and he asks his wife if she wants some too. She says she does, so he gets up and brings back two cups. Then McClellan asks if anyone has any questions, and one gentleman with a heavy Southern accent stands and almost defiantly says that he could have bought a prescription policy a long time ago but chose not to, so what in the hell makes this plan so special that it would compel him to buy one now? McClellan has a big phony smile on his face and smoothly explains in a cool, calm manner that this is different, successfully managing to quell the tension that had suddenly appeared in the room. When McClellan is finished, the man who asked the question offers no retaliation and merely says ‘thank you’ and sits back down, thus zapping the only moment of drama this session is going to provide and discouraging anyone in the audience who is even considering asking a challenging question that they aren’t going to rattle this young whipper-snapper.

McClellan continues his spiel and starts to look like he is even boring himself, and I start to think that I might need some coffee real soon until I look down and notice that my button is no longer attached to my shirt pocket. No need for caffeine when you have panic at your disposal, and I start looking around on the floor and mentally retracing my steps until I spot the button on the carpet next to my foot. As casually as I could, I pick it up and put it back on, this time bending it back so drastically trying to make it so that it won’t fall off again that I almost break it.

After ten grueling minutes of McClellan, one of the event coordinators comes over and asks me if I had gotten enough from this part, and I say I have. She then says that we should go upstairs to join the rest of the press pool, and suddenly the realization kicks in that this is actually happening, that I am about to see the President of the United States in the flesh, and for the first time all morning I truly understand what everyone here is so excited about.

Upstairs there is a small crowd of residents gathered in the lobby who weren’t lucky enough to be invited to the conference room, and a few more standing inside the small vestibule between the inside sliding glass doors and the outside doors hoping to catch a glimpse of the president. It doesn’t seem likely that he is going to come strolling through the front door, but I overhear someone say that the motorcade is supposed to pull up to the building and that the president will enter at some undisclosed back entrance.

I’m standing next to the camerawoman and photographer, none of us knowing what is going on and looking out the window just like the residents. I snap a couple of pictures of the scene, and at one point a lady sitting in an overstuffed chair with a walker parked in front of her snaps, “Don’t stand in front of me!” after I inadvertently block her view of the front door, so I apologize and move out of the way.

While we are waiting, a couple of people who enter the building perform variations of the same gag. One is an employee wearing a white chef coat, and upon seeing all the people gathered she gives a big smile and says “I’m here!” and starts waving to the crowd, causing a few people to chuckle. A few minutes later one of the residents, an elegant looking lady who looks to be in her seventies wearing a fur coat and gaudy jewelry walks in and gasps, “Is this for me?” She exaggerates a flattered gasp and starts blowing kisses to her adoring fans like a Hollywood actress, which perhaps at one time she was because her performance is spot on and she receives a warm round of applause. She then wanders over towards us and makes the same mistake I did a few minutes earlier by stepping into walker-woman’s field of vision, and she too gets a “Don’t stand in front of me!” The woman feels genuinely sorry and leans over to the woman in the chair and tries to apologize, putting her hand on walker-woman’s arm and calling her “dear” as she does so, but walker-woman is trying to look around Hollywood and isn’t paying any attention to the apology. Finally walker-woman yells at Hollywood to get the hell out of the way, and this time she does, feigning a stunned gasp that has the crowd riveted.

The people inside the vestibule keep causing the automatic doors to slide open, thus repeatedly exposing themselves to blasts of Arctic air. They seem to be in good humor about it, though, and laugh every time it happens and tell each other not to move as if making a game out of it.

Finally we hear some motorcycles roaring outside and the motorcade arrives. We are standing back from the crowd and can’t really see anything going on outside, but a Secret Service agent swiftly walks in talking into his shoulder saying, “I am in the building, I am in the building…” Two more agents follow him in and it is quite a spectacle as if they are actually importing the element of frenzy into the building. It is all a grand diversion, though, as it is not the president who follows them in but the reporters and photographers and camera crews of the White House press pool looking like they had all just emerged from a ’69 Volkswagen Beetle they had been squeezed into and shuffling along as if tied together at the ankles. As a journalist, this is even more fascinating to me than seeing the president, and I begin to wonder why anyone in their right mind would want to do this day in and day out.

My cohorts and I follow the frenzy to a carpeted lounge area just beyond the lobby. The poolies seem frazzled, haggard even, many of them already on their cell phones reporting to someone in some newsroom somewhere. I don’t recognize any of them from CNN, though one or two look vaguely familiar. After their calls are made, they mill about talking as if they are all one big family of nomads, and I get the impression that this is a very dull, routine stop for them. I imagine that as young reporters, being in the White House press pool sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime, and the thought alone that the President of the United States would know your name was mind-boggling. Yet I’m sure it becomes jaded as soon as they see the president not as the President of the United States but as just another human being, and that in reality this lifestyle is a nightmare of bouncing from one place to another without end. But they get paid pretty well, I’m sure, and they probably get to brag at cocktail parties about how it’s their job to bust the president’s balls. I’m sure they inwardly complain about what a drag this job really is, but I’m also sure it would probably kill them to become disconnected from the rush of it and that any other job in journalism couldn’t possibly compare.

While we are waiting, the photographer starts telling me about his experience freelancing in DC and how he was once assigned to stake out the homes of Monica Lewinski and Linda Tripp for twelve or so hours just to get a few pictures. He confirms my suspicion about how the lifestyle seems exciting from the outside, but in reality it actually sucks really bad. He says that in his line of work, you get tied down to a single spot and you can’t even take a piss at the risk of missing that ten second window of opportunity of getting the shot.

The carpet on which we are standing has become the defined border between the press pool and the general population. At one point one of the residents wanders onto the carpet and is told by one of the Secret Service agents that she can’t be here. She has a sly look on her face as if she already knows this, but she tells him that she is merely trying to look at the signup sheet posted on the wall for the bridge game later this evening. As she is walking away, she shrugs to someone off to the side as if to say, “I tried.”

After milling around for about fifteen minutes, we are whisked behind a curtain and into a hallway outside the “Crafts Room.” The president is apparently already inside this room having the roundtable, and at some point they are going to let us inside. While we are waiting, I raise my camera over my head and snap a couple of pictures of the press pool from above. A couple of them turn and give me a look, but I pretend not to notice.

My lack of experience has landed me at the back of the crowd, as the regulars know exactly when to spring into action and jockey for position once the signal is given. Everyone probably gets along during the waiting part, but, when it’s time to go to work, there are no friends in the press pool.

We wait for about ten minutes before being allowed into the room. It is a surprisingly small room, probably 10′ x 15′, so when I finally get inside behind everyone else, it is somewhat disorienting to suddenly see the president himself sitting right there with about seven feet away from where I am standing.

He is seated between the resident and Dr. McClellan, who had been escorted up here after finishing his discussion down in the conference room. He is wearing a dark suit with a light blue shirt and an orange tie, and he is casually talking about how he had worked with the Congress to improve and modernize Medicare. As clearly as I hear the voice that sounds so familiar from TV, I am unable to follow what he is saying. I soon realize that it is the familiarity itself that is throwing me off, as here is a man whose image I’ve seen and voice I’ve heard on TV just about every day for five years now, but now here he is sitting right in front of my eyes. It almost seems as if he is on TV now, except I am inside the TV with him, and I begin to feel like Mike Teevee at the Wonka factory. And this is nothing like seeing a movie star or a rock star or any other form of entertainment celebrity, as most of them go out of their way to look different every time they appear in public and almost never look the same in person as they do on TV or in the movies. George W. Bush in person looks exactly like he does on TV, only in super hi-definition quality, which is not necessarily a good thing.

I am standing near the door, and next to me is a well-groomed, fresh-faced Secret Service agent who doesn’t look a day over nineteen (think of young Kevin Bacon as Omega pledge Chip Diller in Animal House). While the press is taking pictures, I snap a few myself until this guy tells me to stop because my flash is too bright and is distracting. I am a little puzzled since my flash doesn’t seem any brighter to me than the monster flashes that most of the photographers have on their cameras, and I begin to wonder if it is because my little old $400 digital camera is clearly not the professional grade of these other photographers with their $5,000 rigs and that they are concerned about low quality pictures of the president being taken. I do manage to get a few shots in, though, including one where I zoomed in close to his face, but I want to get as many shots as I can, so I turn the flash off and am about to take another picture when Kevin Bacon warns me not to.

“The flash is off,” I say.

“I don’t care,” he says.

It is difficult not to respond to this, but I know that another word will cause a commotion and get me kicked out, so I comply. I can’t help thinking, though, that I can take this twerp, Secret Service training or not. It is on this thought that Bush is suddenly thanking everyone for coming and we are getting booted. According to my digital voice recorder, we were in the room for three minutes.

Out in the hall I am engulfed by members of the press pool, who are now in a mad dash to get downstairs to the presidential meet-and-greet. On our way down the hall, the photographer mentions that I didn’t get to ask my big question, which gets the attention of the woman from the pool who looks the most familiar to me. She asks me with interest what I was going to ask, and for a brief moment I feel like I’m in the club. For the possibility of there being a Q&A session, I had been given a ridiculously long question by my editor about the prospect of the government possibly drawing up some insurance plan similar to one that the retirement community will be offering at some point in the future, a question too embarrassing to ask and likely too long for the president to understand, so I told her that I was merely going to ask something about ‘Part D’ that he actually answered while we were in there. I wanted to tell her what I really wanted to ask—”Mr. President, how do you sleep at night?” I can tell by the look on her grizzled face that she probably would have appreciated a curveball thrown by some rookie at this otherwise meaningless event, and I can tell that she is disappointed by my answer. But I let it pass because I have already grown weary of this strange and suffocating setting and am already looking forward to getting the hell out of here so I can start breathing again.

The Grizzled Veteran

Downstairs we are not stopped by security and are whisked right into the conference room, where more Frank Sinatra Christmas music is playing, only now it seems a couple of decibels louder. We are directed by Kevin Bacon to stand behind some velvet ropes that have been set up, and then a couple of minutes later he tells us to move back three more feet. When the group doesn’t comply instantly, he repeats his order in a more authoritative tone, and the grizzled reporter woman protests that he just told us to stand there and now he’s saying something else. He says something to her as if he is used to such backtalk from her and is more tolerant of it than he was with me and my camera.

A couple of minutes later the president appears from behind a curtain. He is all smiles and starts greeting some of the residents standing nearby. He shakes hands, poses for pictures, and then looks over the shoulder of someone seated at one of the computer stations with a CMS counselor. This last part seems more than a bit staged—here is this guy sitting there at the computer looking at prescription insurance info, and the President of the United States pops in and looks over his shoulder, camera flashes start going off, and the guy just casually says hello and points to something on the computer screen. Bush says something to the guy, shakes his hand, and then moves on.

Meanwhile, the scene behind the velvet ropes is getting ugly. There is some light pushing and shoving going on as everyone jockeys for position, and I get stuck in the very precarious position of having my teeth knocked out by the butt end of a boom mike that the guy in front of me is holding if he merely pulls it back. Having once knocked out one of my own teeth with a wrench while attempting to fix a foosball table in college, I immediately recognize the danger and swiftly find another spot.

I manage to get a few pictures in, but it is difficult because the president is moving around talking to people and shaking hands, and the poolies are reacting to his every move. At one point he is only standing a few feet away, and I overhear some guy ask him how his father is doing. He says that he is doing fine and thanks the guy for asking. He seems very relaxed, putting his arm around people while posing for pictures and allowing them to put their arms around him, including ‘I Like Bush.’ I wonder if Bush even sees how creepy this man really is, but I conclude that the President of the United States is a man who exists in a bubble so far removed from what the rest of us consider to be normal that he probably does not see anything as it really is, which may partially explain some of the decisions he has made in office.

Bush greets Mr. and Mrs.”I Like Bush”. Also, Secret Service agents all over the room looking at me because of the flash on my Fuji FinePix digital camera.

This is definitely his crowd, though. After all the criticism Bush has received lately about the war in Iraq and having recently received his all-time lowest approval rating as president, it appears that he needed some love and came here to get it with an audience likely hand-picked from the community’s Republican Club consisting of well-off government retirees who likely used to refer to the sitting president as their boss. And this crowd is certainly not disappointing him. Yet, despite how showy and downright phony this all seems on the part of a president who is here merely in pursuit of some much-needed good publicity that a good photo-op can provide, I can also see the very human side of this event, which is the part you almost never see on TV. For most of these people this is the thrill of a lifetime, something they may have always dreamed of experiencing, and now, this very late in their lives, that dream has finally come true. There is an excitement and life in their eyes that you usually don’t see in people their age, which is nice to see, but there’s also a sadness to it when I hear them telling him to “Stay the course, Mr. President,” as if they would approve of everything he has done so far and will continue to do so without question merely because he is the President of the United States.

Then, on the other side, I am seeing the human side of George W. Bush, which I have never seen before. For a moment he doesn’t seem like the President of the United States, ruler of the free world, but a man politely saying hello to people and asking them how they are doing and posing for pictures with them. It is surprising to see how personable he is considering how uncomfortable he usually seems during his speeches and debates. No deer in the headlights this morning—today it is more like the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Bush posing with resident as her dapper white-haired husband looks on, as well as a very large Secret Service agent. On the far right, host of this shindig, billionaire retirement home mogul John Erickson.

After about ten minutes, the president says something in Kevin Bacon’s ear. Bacon then springs into action and tells us that we have to leave. At first I think it is because I was taking pictures again, but the president apparently requested to have all the press cleared out, including the regular poolies, who are instructed to exit at the curtain through which the president entered while for some reason myself, the photographer, and the camerawoman are being told to exit through the door through which we came in earlier. Before we have a chance to comply, though, George Costanza comes over and tells us that we can stay. Bacon, though, overhears this and says to us, “No, you have to leave—now. This is an order from the president himself.”

That is good enough for me, but Costanza tells Bacon that we can stay. I am impressed by this and am very tempted to jump in and tell Bacon to jump back, but he is very clearly about to blow his stack and I decide that I would be better off taking the order of a young turk Secret Service agent with something to prove rather than some corporate flunky who works for a retirement community and doesn’t seem to recognize the gravity of the situation.

The photographer and camerawoman follow my lead out of the room to where the security checkpoint had been earlier, but they and the metal detector are gone now with no evidence that they were ever there. Several Secret Service agents are standing out there now, and Kevin Bacon, who has personally escorted us out the door, tells one of them to make sure that we don’t try to get back inside. One of the agents nods and then looks at us, and we just stand there for a while watching the agents watch us.

While we are standing there, one of the other agents, a frat-boy-turned-Secret-Service type who seems to be a little too chipper to be in the Secret Service, comes over and asks if I got any good shots. I tell him I think so, trying to disregard his addressing me as if I am a child. He then asks if he could see them, which seems really creepy. I oblige, though, and as I’m scrolling through the pictures on the LCD display, he is making comments like, “That’s a good one,” and “Wow, you really got close to him on that one,” to which I respond that I used the zoom and that I really wasn’t that close. I am particularly concerned about one of the zoom shots because I know I caught Bush with one of his goofy expressions that cameras often seem to catch him making, but he doesn’t say anything about that one.

After going through all the pictures, he simply says “cool” and walks away. He doesn’t ask to see the real photographer’s pictures, which makes me think that my lack of a professional-looking camera has put them on alert and that they may have been keeping an extra close eye on me. Otherwise, they have succeeded in successfully making me paranoid.

By now I have had enough, but I have to stay and get some quotes from the residents and the camerawoman also has to stick around and get some sound bites from them as well. After we get word that the president has left, the photographer says his work is done and starts packing up his equipment.

We are now allowed back in the conference room, which by now has mostly cleared out, but there are still some lingering residents and a few Secret Service agents. I get a few quotes from the residents, including ‘I Like Bush’, who tells me that the president said to him that he liked the picture on his shirt. I also talk to the CEO of the retirement community, and then take a seat to jot down some notes. Although nobody seems to be looking at me, I can’t help but feel that I am still being watched.

Finally I find Costanza and ask him if there is anything else going on, and he says there isn’t and that there’s no point in hanging around. He also mentions that if I want to keep my button as a souvenir that I should hide it from view because the head Secret Service guy spotted his earlier and asked him to give it back. I drop it into my pocket and shake hands with him and head for the door, right by the head Secret Service guy, who had been sitting in the lobby staring at a laptop.

Once back outside in the cold air, I feel much better being free of the watchful eyes of men who are licensed to kill. As I’m driving out, I pass several Secret Service agents and a few guys in fatigues along the road, which makes me feel like I’m not quite free yet. Even when I pass through the community gates, I can’t help peeking in the rearview mirror to see if I’m being followed. I don’t feel safe again until I’m finally back on the Beltway, where I’m just another car going round the bend and getting further and further away from something I don’t want to ever be that close to again. ▪