Hail to the Chief, and the sound of hundreds of camera shutters.
This is the sound track to their lives.
For me, this is a moment that has just earned a spot on the timeline of my life — a little mark, with the caption, ‘The time I saw the United States President and First Lady.’
To them, it is just another day.
I waited in line in the cold since 7 a.m., fought a crowd of aggressive photographers to be one of the hundreds that crammed into the stanchions lining the East Room and craning to see the couple as they strode in.
It’s that song we’ve all heard, every time a United States president walks onto a stage. But this time it’s not on my laptop speakers, it’s reverberating through the White House.
Even the cheering crowd doesn’t drown the sound of shutters clicking as the shoulder-to-shoulder press, confined the outer edge of the room, strive to get a shot of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama as they strow toward the front of the room.
Obama tells everyone to sit, and two rows “outstanding citizens” settle in chairs behind him.
It’s the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony.
The Medal of Freedom is our nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to security, national interests, world peace — those sort of things.
It’s been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy established the honor, and since then more than 500 individuals have received the award. Thirty-one more were added to the number on Nov. 20 — among the noteworthy present were Bill Clinton, Loretta Lynn, Gloria Steinem, Oprah Winfrey. Then my, admittedly less well-known subjects of interest — the two Latinos being awarded. Chemist Mario Molina, who, born in Mexico, discovered how chlorofluorocarbons deplete the ozone layer, and jazz trumpet player Arturo Sandoval. It is these two who gave me an excuse to request a press pass to attend the coveted White House event.
Jessica Wray, my roommate and fellow Scripps Howard intern, and I arrived at the White House at 7a.m. to join the already cueing press, jostling to be the first to enter the White House and set up tripods or ladders to mark their places for the event which would not take place until 11a.m.
Aggressive cameramen, casual White House reporters and newbies like myself wait in line side-by-side. I’ve been to the White House once before, only to spend two hours waiting in the press-briefing room and be disappointed by a cancelled Latino music event.
While this event wouldn’t be cancelled, the reporters at the back of the line met a similar demise. There wasn’t room for all those who the White House press people accepted to fit into the limited space in the East Room. Those left over after the room was filled were stuck in the press briefing room watching the live feed on a screen.
I made it in, and nestled between the pool press reporters on the far right side of the room. And there I was, standing on a stool, snapping pictures of the side of Obama’s face as he welcomed medal recipient with a smile, a hug, a whisper in each one’s ear, as if he had never been so happy to see anyone. He laughed and smiled that smile that was so bright and sincere it was almost as if he didn’t do this everyday. As if this day was special.
And Michelle stared up at him from the front row for the entire hour, with a proud half-smile on her face and a look in her eyes like she could not be more honored to have a husband who was so witty and sweet. Then she would shoot occasional adoring glances at Hillary Clinton who sat beside her, as their husbands hugged and whispered in each others ears and Obama hung the medal around former president’s neck.
Were they really this happy everyday? Or where those seemingly genuine smiles the product of a lot of practice being broadcasted live?
Did Michelle wake up that morning and not want to put on that maroon dress? What if today was a bad day and she didn’t want to be on national news. Was she angry at her husband and didn’t want to walk in on his arm — to the sound of a song called “Hail to the Chief?”
And even if she wanted to today, did she want to do it again tomorrow?
I get a read-out of everything she does, every day. When something runs 20 minutes off schedule I get a notification in my email box.
Did she know what she was getting signed up for — does she love it, or is today just another day?