Weekending With the President: What It’s Like Being Part of White House Pool Coverage

From an Inside the Times story by David E. Sanger headlined “Weekending With the President”:

WILMINGTON, Del. — It is one of the most rote tasks in White House reporting: covering the president on the weekends, when he wants to relax, go to church, play golf or just sit around reading the paper and talking on the phone. But it has to be done, and the answer, for decades, has been the White House “pool,” a small rotation of reporters who follow the president wherever he goes, even if the place he is going is somewhat mundane.

Most White House reporting involves investigative work, deep dives into policy and profiles of key figures. But I’ve done my share of pool reporting as well, notably when I covered the White House when Bill Clinton was president (good pool duty: he liked to sleep in, so no trip left before noon, though it might end at 2 a.m.) and for most of George W. Bush’s presidency (bad pool duty: he wanted to sleep in his own bed, so day trips from Washington to, say, California were not unheard-of).

But last weekend I found myself back in the pool van, looking out at the forsythia and weeping willows near the Biden’s house on the once-quiet Barley Mill Road on the edges of Wilmington, watching the president … go to church … and golf….

“Hee, hee,” read an email from Helene Cooper, our military reporter, who, when she does Pentagon pool duty, at least gets to sleep on an aircraft carrier or ride the Doomsday Plane. I got the Westin Wilmington….

But at least I knew what I was getting into when Joe Biden was elected and our Washington bureau chief, Elisabeth Bumiller, with whom I shared the White House beat for many years, asked me to return to a job I left 14 years ago. The idea was to focus on Mr. Biden’s foreign and national security policy. “You won’t have to do pools,” she assured me. “Much.”…

So it was a hundred-plus days into the Biden era, just when all of us were settling into the thought that you could go bicycling or fishing on the weekend without fearing what might appear on Twitter, before my number came up.

Not much happened. Mr. Biden, famously garrulous when he sat down next to you on the Amtrak train in his senatorial days, dispensing observations about world leaders he knew and the crisis du jour, has become remarkably disciplined.

On Saturday, the pool flew to Wilmington on open-backed Osprey helicopters, and when the president landed he overcame any urge to talk over the sound of the rotors. On Sunday, he was determined not to make news on the story of the day: How Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, whom he didn’t call for four weeks after inauguration, was returning the favor by ignoring his calls for some restraint in the military campaign against Hamas that was resulting in major civilian casualties.

So Mr. Biden kept his distance when he showed up at St. Joseph on the Brandywine for church; we were on the other side of an 18th-century graveyard from him, walking along a pathway at the edge of the worn headstones. We never even saw him when, a few hours later, he was dropped off at the Fieldstone Golf Course.

All this sounds like a waste of journalistic resources — which it is, until it isn’t. In my home office, I keep a photograph of President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade passing under a giant banner with the word “Sanger’s” — the Texas retailer my great-great-grandfather founded with his brothers — a minute before the assassination in Dallas. It’s a reminder that the full name of the enterprise is the “protective pool,” to make sure we are there if something happens.

And it has. One of the amused readers I heard from on Sunday was Ann Compton, the former correspondent for ABC News Radio. Ann and I shared pool duty on a trip to Florida with President Bush on Sept. 10, 2001. That night we were having dinner in Sarasota, Fla., with other journalists — Mr. Bush was in the next room with his brother Jeb — when I started wondering if listening to him give the same speech pushing the “No Child Left Behind” bill was the best way to use our journalistic resources.

“Oh, I don’t know, David,” Ann said. “I’ve been on some trips where it seemed boring, and then something really big happened.” The next morning, as I sat in the schoolhouse watching images of the twin towers while the president was listening to young readers, I got a vivid lesson in what she meant.

And there are less momentous but memorable incidents, too. Knowing I had spent years as a correspondent in Asia, Mr. Clinton talked with me for an hour on his last big trip in Vietnam, as he tried to sort out the power struggle underway in the country between those fighting the old war and those trying to move the country into the digital age.

On pool duty at a summit meeting in Sea Island, Ga., in 2004, I was the sole person, other than the Secret Service, with Mr. Bush as he awaited the arrival of world leaders. They were all late. So we talked, about whether he had abandoned Afghanistan for the war in Iraq, about Texas, about our fathers, who both served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II….

Over time, one hopes, a little more of the old Joe Biden will show up, a bit more revealing about what he’s thinking about on the weekends. (With Donald Trump, we rarely had to wonder.) And please, Mr. President, when I do this again, could you make some news?

David E. Sanger is a White House and national security correspondent. In a 38-year reporting career for The Times, he has been on three teams that have won Pulitzer Prizes, most recently in 2017 for international reporting. His newest book is “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age.”

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