Saturday, 4 April 2009

The Obama press conference

So, you know when you're at an international summit, right. Various press conferences are scheduled to be held throughout the day. I tripped along, palpitating, to the ones I was most focussed on - Douglas Alexander (Secretary of State for International Development) and Ed Miliband (Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) - and was struck by the boredom of the press pack (about 30, maybe 40, at each); another day, another international summit. I got the first question in at both of these because I was sitting in the front row like the swot I am, madly making eye contact and nodding intelligently as the minister gave his briefing.

(In fact - indulge me on this for a minute - I am the first blogger ever to ask a question at an international summit. Yeah, I know you don't give a shit. You have a good point and you're making it well. You would definitely be surprised by how much this accolade is being fought over in the blogosphere (look I CAN'T break into the narrative to make an excuse for each individual piece of toe-curling terminology, we'll be here for months). So, to sum up: Hey! Losers! I was first! I asked a question about THE LITTLE LADIES and their LADY BITS! Build a bridge and get over it!)

So. UK ministers, foreign heads of state; press conferences came and went and the press in general did a good impersonation of a fourth-former at morning assembly, only not so good-looking.

We'd been told that the POTUS's press conference would be at around 18.00, but as the afternoon wore on, the internal plasma screens that were giving out information made no reference to it. Nevertheless, at about 17.15 I thought it would be a good idea to walk down the ExCel's internal 'boulevard' (see disclaimer above) to see if anything was happening. There were already about 100 journalists in the queue. The people in front of me were German broadcasters; the people behind were Chinese print journos. It reminded me of being in the queue for day tickets at Wimbledon. Some people caught your eye and smiled; others insinuated themselves into the queue like a pensioner at the five-items-or-fewer till. Reader, I actually physically shoved someone back out who'd pushed in front of me.

I turned around. I was now in the front fifth of the queue. Security personnel came to have a look at us a couple of times, walking up and down and eye-balling people. (One of the other G20Voice bloggers, a risk-management expert, remarked that it's a sign of how good POTUS's security is that it's almost invisible; being surrounded by a pack of suits talking into their wrists is, apparently, a sure sign that someone's security is a bit second-rate, and needs to create a public impression.)

Then they started to let us in. There were five or six different briefing rooms, and we were heading into the arena-style space, with capacity for about 600 journalists. I wanted to run, but somehow restrained myself. Neverthless, I got a fairly central seat in the ninth row. Once we were all in, there was a short wait before a man I've never met, and yet feel immensely familiar with, walked purposefully to the lectern in the centre of the stage.

You've read and heard all this before, but his charismatic authority is almost a physical force. I don't actually go a bundle on his rhetorical style myself - his cadences are repetitive - and politically he's not completely my style either. But he comes across as a fully-formed human being, only better (funnier, brighter, more skilled); he is Human 2.0. When it came to taking questions from the press, he didn't leave it to a flunkey at the side of the stage to pick who was going to get called on (as Gordon Brown had done earlier in the day). He said, apologetically, that he had a list of US journalists on whom he needed to call, but that he would try to 'sprinkle in' some 'random' questions from the rest of us. So the first few questions were the usual blah about US jobs; I'd like to be rude about this, but the questions to Brown had had the same domestic focus. Then he indicated that he was going to choose someone at random, and 600 journalists (including me? Hell yes!) put their hands in the air. He chose a woman who also turned out to be from the US. Later on, he chose an Indian journalist who asked a question about the bilateral meeting Obama had held with the Indian Prime Minster, Dr Manmohan Singh. Obama said that he was a great fan of Dr Singh's, and the Indian journo got a bit flustered and said 'Thank you, I'm very proud of him'. Her trembling voice and obvious excitement got the rest of us laughing, and Obama - with the timing of a master - looked at her quizzically and said 'Why, did you have something to do with it?'. It was like Saturday Night at the London Palladium.

At the end of the conference, I thought: are people going to applaud? Surely not. But they did. And as they applauded and got to their feet to leave, it created a little unintentional standing ovation. Then the press's inner fourth-former awoke from its daydream with a self-loathing start. Obama bt. International Press, 6-0, 6-1, 6-0.

What would I have asked him? 'Mr President [God you've GOT to say it haven't you], earlier today the UK's Secretary of State for International Development told me that maternal mortality rates in developing countries remain high because the issue is not a political priority in the West. Do you think his analysis is correct?'

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