Standing in the jam-packed Red Mountain Student Center on Tuesday, I felt overwhelmed and awestruck at the same time. I couldn't believe me, little Caryn Haller, was three hours away from interviewing the president of the United States. As I looked around at the TV reporters with their nice clothes and perfect hair, I envisioned the face of News Editor Sheila Gardner telling me, "You are the perfect person for this." I felt better. My palms weren't sweating quite as much as before.
I looked around from the steps of the media risers and tried to absorb everything around me. Serious-looking men in suits and earphones were talking with local law enforcement officers and making last-minute preparations for the arrival of President Barack Obama. One of those men followed me to the ladies room door where he was still standing when I came out. I struck up a conversation with him asking him how long he'd been there, and giving him kudos for the dangerous job he does. He works out of the San Jose office and said he enjoyed his job because of how he never knows whom he will be protecting each day. It could be a foreign dignitary one day, or, like Tuesday, it could be President Obama.
I went back to the media riser steps and felt a total calm about everything. Then, I noticed Reno Gazette Journal legislative reporter Ray Hagar standing beside me. I introduced myself to him and told him I worked for The Record-Courier.
He smiled and said he used to work there as a sports writer, which he really enjoyed. Later, I asked if he had ever interviewed a sitting president, which he said, "No, this is the closest I have ever been to one," pointing to the podium about 50 feet away. I then replied, "Yeah? That's pretty close," as I walked away. I had to laugh at the look on Hagar's face when he found out I was one of three rural reporters getting to interview Obama. But seriously Ray, if you are reading this, I was really just going to ask you for pointers, I wasn't trying to rub it in.
I next started talking to the nicest person. Her name was Verita Prothro, a talk radio co-host in Reno. She made me feel like an equal. We talked about our kids and careers and the experience of seeing President Obama. I can't thank her enough for being so nice to me.
After the opening speakers finished and yet another wait, it was finally time for the president to speak. He was greeted with thunderous applause, cheers and chants of "Four more years." I couldn't believe how well I could see him. I was really glad I wasn't down with the crowd, and had a clear line of sight. As I held out my phone to take a picture I noticed one of the Secret Service agents giving me the eye.
I found Obama's speech to be really enjoyable. After all, I'll be paying off my student loans until my son, who just started kindergarten, starts college himself. The crowd was energized throughout his speech, and I just kept thinking how awesome this experience was.
When the president finished speaking, one of the press liaisons rounded up Nevada Appeal reporter Geoff Dornan, Lahontan Valley News reporter Steve Puterski and myself, and rushed us off to the student bookstore to wait for the president to shake hands and mingle with the audience.
After about a 10-minute wait we were moved to a plain room behind the podium with a round table with our names and a bottle of water in front of where we should sit. I quickly swallowed my gum to ensure I didn't accidentally chew on it while talking to the president. As Obama entered the room, we all stood and greeted him. Dornan looked at the phone in the president's hand and asked, "Still have your Blackberry? Can I have the number?" to which the president gave a brush-off answer and sat down, right next to me.
Before we asked him our one question, he had a short spiel about how rural communities are struggling and how he is focused on job creation and economic development. He then turned to me and said, "Caryn, go ahead and ask your question." I took a breath and as calmly and professionally as I could asked him why his economic policies haven't worked in our community. As he started answering, I began furiously writing to get down every word. Then I told myself to stop writing and just listen to him. I had a tape recorder, I didn't need to write down everything. As he finished with his answer and moved on to the other two reporters' questions, I noticed how gray his hair had gotten over the last three years. Overall, I was surprised that he looked exactly the same in person as he does on television.
When we were finished, President Obama stood up and said, "Let's do a picture." I stood up and followed the boys over to a flag hanging on the wall as a backdrop and asked, "Where do you want me?" President Obama stretched out his hand and brought me over to him saying, "You can stand right next to me. You won't block anyone." I was thrilled. I put my right arm around his back and beamed with joy as the photographer took our picture. It was awesome. My only worry now is if my eyes were open or not.
My time with the president was over, and as I shook hands with him again I said, "God bless you, sir." He returned the blessing and we left. We had to wait until the presidential motorcade left campus before we were released, but as I was driving home down 395, I looked to my left just in time to see Air Force One take off. So cool.
This was definitely the scariest, most exciting and challenging assignment of my life, but I did it, and am so grateful for the opportunity. I now have a newfound confidence that I, Caryn Haller, can interview the president of the United States.
Caryn Haller is content coordinator at The Record-Courier. Reach her at 782-5121, ext. 215 or firstname.lastname@example.org