Cooking Up a State Dinner

MASHA GONCHAROVA/THE HOYA White House staff prepare for the state dinner held in honor of Chinese President Hu Jintao Wednesday evening.

MASHA GONCHAROVA/THE HOYA
White House staff prepare for the state dinner held in honor of Chinese President Hu Jintao Wednesday evening.

When I woke up on Wednesday morning, I could not have anticipated that that evening I would be standing alongside international media giants in the White House. The day marked the second of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s three days in Washington, D.C., and the evening’s state dinner already promised to be newsworthy. By a lucky chance, I was fortunate enough to cover the event.

Here is my experience: a behind-the-scenes view of how the events at the White House become what you see on television, read in the newspapers and watch videos of online — in short, how news is made.

Names on the media guest list have to arrive at the North Gate the exact minute of the scheduled appointment. The same rules do not apply to the weathered reporters in black pea coats armed with red press tags that decree that they may enter at anytime, carrying cameras, cables and even bags filled with Cosi sandwiches.

Once past the gate, there is a crush of people, as ABC cameramen stand neck-and-neck with their counterparts at CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC. Reporters pace around testing different octaves of “Hu Jintao.”

The stairs down to the briefing room lead to a rather small door, inside of which there are rows of well-sized and comfortable blue chairs.

Walking in for the first time, I felt like I was entering a potpourri of journalist clichés — BlackBerrys, newspapers, power cords, laptops, dress pants, North Face fleeces, ties and coffee cups were strewn about.

I was overwhelmed — I just stood there, glued to the floor in disbelief — until a navy blue fleece sleeve interrupted my gaze, and the fleece’s owner asked, “So where ya from kid?” That’s how I met my self-proclaimed briefing room mentor. “Georgetown student paper university. Student university Georgetown,” I stammered. “The Hoya. A paper for the student newspaper. Of Georgetown.”

He laughed and showed me the mechanics of the pressroom, or “the gut of the White House,” as it’s dubbed by its occupants. There are offices behind the briefing room for the media giants, such as the Associated Press, Reuters, NBC, ABC and Fox. About the size of a Rafik B. Hariri Building breakout room, the offices are lined with computers on each side. Inside any one of them, the word “speed” is tangible: Laptops litter the ground, cameras are spread all over chairs and everybody wears headphones while watching a clip, writing, emailing, blogging, or tweeting. Print leaders like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Huffington Post have desks in the main hallway just outside. Then there is the kitchen — the one place where the expensive equipment does not flood the premises, the hub of chitchat and political jokes. There is only one as abundant in the press room as cameras or computers: the coffeemaker.

Once back outside, on the patio in front of the Palm Room, I and several photographers, reporters and cameramen assembled as we prepared for the first event on the press agenda: a tour of the state dinner set up. At the base of the stairs that lead to the front of the White House, two groups of media emerged: the cameramen, casual in sneakers and jackets, accustomed to the wear and tear of White House coverage, and the photographers and reporters.

The latter group had clearly formed cliques: the regulars and the newcomers. The first group joked about the Christmas dinner they had obviously attended; the novices either fumbled with their smart phones or gossiped about the star-studded guest list for the evening. Vera Wang would be there. So would the Clintons.

I trekked along — up the stairs, towards the front door, inside — and then there I was: inside of the White House.

As we spread throughout the dining rooms, we were literally playing a game of Twister, trying hard not to interrupt the proceedings. We failed. After the aides asked everyone to leave for a fifth time, some photographers actually began to head out. The skilled ones, however, ducked unnoticed into another room and I followed. Unfortunately one aide, a skinny girl with a wisp of brown hair, took me by the shoulder, lightly yet firmly, and asked me to leave. My camera, pointed toward a photo of Nixon, went off again, this time by accident. She pushed down on my shoulder: “I was not kidding.” Her left eyebrow slowly lifted. Other photographers scurried so as to not repeat my fate.

“Good luck with the dinner,” I said meekly as my shoulder was pushed toward the door. A photographer told me not to worry and that he has seen much worse.

My luck was quickly restored, however, when I was invited, this time by a much nicer aide, to the second event — the arrival of President Hu Jintao. An hour later, we rushed up the stairs again, the photographers armed with re-charged, re-lensed cameras. We climbed, no matter our footwear, onto the two wooden platforms in front of the door to the White House. Within the hour, the messy front room was transformed into a sparkling hall with jazz musicians and cherry blossoms.

We stood there for an hour, photographers on the top tier, cameramen on the lower tier. The “presidential pool,” or the main media that covers Obama regularly, got the flowerbeds. While waiting, we exchanged mints, camera settings and stories of photo shoots.

Then the doorman threw open the White House doors and out came the President and First Lady. Everyone was silent. They walked up to the front of the red carpet, and they stood. The First Lady and her husband. Right there. The only sound was that of camera shutters. President Hu’s limousine arrived – he exited, shook hands with his American counterpart, they posed, they walked inside. Everything occurred in five silent minutes.

In the sixth, the red carpet was already rolling back up, the National Guard was marching away, and everyone on the platform had their phones out asking, “Wait, what color was her dress again?”

Tangerine? Burnt orange? Grapefruit? Their Twitter feeds had to be accurate after all. By the eighth minute, one woman from the Chinese press had already composed a short story on her iPhone that she was sending overseas for publication.

We walked back inside, everyone frantically looking at our media packets, trying only to determine what was next on the agenda.

They would be giving a toast in 15 minutes.

Suddenly I understood the nature of news. If somebody had told me before Wednesday that in 15 minutes Obama would be giving a toast, I don’t know if I would have been that concerned. But when you’re in that press room — thinking about the shot, the frame, the description and the story that you have to churn out — the toast at the state dinner is just as important as the arrival of the visiting dignitary 10 minutes earlier. It is what’s happening next, it becomes top priority.

It is, simply put, news.

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