On the President's List: Obama Does Southern California

Bear market: Obama in O.C.
Ted Soqui

“You are not on the list,” the very young volunteer insists. “You are not getting in here.”

Plus, he snootily adds, with an attitude normally reserved for after-dark velvet-rope guardians, they (meaning, he) won’t let media “like you” (meaning, me) in anyway. “They have too much media here already.”

I’m at Gate 8 of the Orange County Fairgrounds, trying to get in to photograph President Obama’s first visit to the Southland since he won the election. I’m three hours early.

The volunteer tells me to pull my car out of the way and leave. OMG! I’m not on “the list!”

Normally I’d turn back and head home, but the whole list thing is pissing me off.

Heading to the nearest parking spot, I break out my cell phone and computer, then call the local White House advance staff. Two minutes later, the White House advance staffer quickly and happily adds me to the list. I head back to Gate 8, but I’m again met by the young volunteer who tells me, “You’re not on the list!” A law-enforcement officer is waving me in, but the volunteer is telling me to leave, again.

“You are early anyway,” he tells me.

Back to the parking spot for me.

A reporter and photographer from the Nguoi-Viet Daily News pull up next to me and tell me they just went through the same song and dance with the volunteer. When I tell them I’m with the L.A. Weekly, they pull from their truck the latest copy of the Weekly and tell me how much they enjoy the paper. I give them the local numbers to the White House advance staffer to help get them in.

We are now all inside the O.C. Fairgrounds waiting for Obama’s arrival. Spots are plentiful on the media risers. I see a spot I really like and head for it.

“Sir, you can’t access this area. It’s for important press.” It’s the same guy who didn’t want to let me in at the gate. Inside, my head wants to pop a vein, but the outside me coolly asks him who to talk to about accessing the area. He doesn’t know or doesn’t want to say, and tells me to clear the way. 

Instead, I find the onsite White House advance staff person, who guides me past the stunned volunteer to the spot I liked.

The president arrives and the whole crowd is on its feet. Obama is in the middle of the O.C., and they love him. He gives a moving speech on the economy and of better days ahead for America; every word is gobbled up. At the end of his speech, he asks the crowd if he can remove his coat and roll up his sleeves. It’s a very warm day, the faces of those in attendance are sunburnt; everyone has been standing in line, under the hot sun all day. Many spent the night camped out in line, waiting for the president.

The still photographers are bouncing around the media riser, each one choosing where to position the grizzly Bear on the California flag that floats behind the president. One guy likes the president pointing toward the bear’s nose, another likes the bear’s nose sniffing Obama’s head, still another likes the president pointing to the bear’s behind. The possibilities are endless.

When Obama takes questions from the crowd, he picks them in man-woman-man-woman order. For his last question, Obama points to a huge muscular man, Duane Weber. He has a mean, mad-dog look, and tells Obama he’s lost his job of 13 years at the Toyota plant. He fears he can’t get another job because he has a 20-year-old felony. Only when Obama tells Weber that his long work history proves he’s made amends to society does the man drop his mad-dog stare and finally smile at the president.

After Obama leaves the building, grumbling still photographers struggle with weak Wi-fi signals and battle each other for the bandwidth necessary to upload their images. I leave them and their anemic Wi-fi, and then head to the local Starbucks, where there is bandwidth galore.

Inside Starbucks the locals are sharing images they took of the president. It’s a festive atmosphere, and the employees override the usual Starbucks muzak with dance and alt rock. Everyone tells stories about their day, having shaken hands with Obama, and being part of history. A large motorcade of official vehicles whizzes by, everyone hushes and reverently watches. They believe it’s the president’s motorcade. I haven’t the heart to tell them he left via helicopter.

It’s a different scene 24 hours later at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex in Los Angeles. For one thing, there is a roped-off protest to walk through on 3rd Street; the signs in Spanish are critical of the president’s remarks on immigration when he was in the O.C.

This time I am on the list and quickly move inside the high school auditorium, along with the rest of the media. Once inside, fellow photogs Twitter and Facebook their status. “Ted is waiting,” I type.

As we take our places, we are told that media members who need to use the restroom must be escorted by one of the volunteers. I suddenly realize that I had too much coffee and may need to pee.

I ask for a volunteer to “escort me.” She shouts out to the crowd, “ANYONE ELSE? ANYONE ELSE NEED TO USE THE RESTROOM? I’M NOT GOING TO DO THIS ALL DAY! ANYONE ELSE NEED TO USE THE RESTROOM?” I don’t need to pee anymore, but I follow her anyway, along with a small group of other shamed media.

Obama arrives to a more subdued crowd. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger head the list of political dignitaries present — in this crowd, Arnold is more popular than Antonio, surprising, since L.A. is Villaraigosa’s town — but Obama’s star power far exceeds our actor governor’s. He holds his town hall–style meeting, but the questions and comments feel more scripted and generic than yesterday’s. He can still charm, but yesterday’s O.C. magic is gone. I even spot Los Angeles’ fire chief and sheriff leave midspeech.

Afterward, I walk out to see the president’s tanklike limo with its bullet-proofed green windows drive by. But few in the crowd take notice of either the limo or of the 30 or so quiet protestors watched by nearly as many LAPD officers.

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