Cleveland news anchor reflects on his one-on-one interview with President Obama in the White House

Interviewing President Obama in the White House

CLEVELAND - The big gate on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., unlocked as I stated my business at the White House. In two steps, I was inside the grounds of the center of political leadership in the United States -- the home of the president.

The uniformed Secret Service officer behind the desk asked for my identification, verifying my identity. I was instructed to step a few feet to the right, empty my pockets of all metal objects and proceed through a metal detector. My briefcase was left on the ground at the checkpoint. It would be sniffed by security dogs in a moment.

The two men with whom I traveled, television and website producer Mike Waterhouse and television news photographer Mike Vielhaber were going through the same routine.

"Leon, welcome to the White House," said Matt Lehrich of the media office of the White House.

Smiling, he extended his hand, which I took. I then walked through the White House news briefing room, which is often shown on television when the press secretary meets with reporters. We walked through a sliding door.

It was there the atmosphere changed. This was the west wing of the White House, often seen in photographs and documentaries detailing life inside the White House. The temperature was cool in the building. Overhead lights were directed on photographs of President Obama in many settings -- speaking to Congress, meeting with other governments' high-ranking officials, conducting news conferences and in casual settings with First Lady Michelle Obama and their children.

Through narrow corridors we walked, I noticed either plain clothes or uniformed Secret Service officers and agents at almost every turn in the building. Lehrich led me to the office of the White House chief of staff, Bill Daley, which is located only a few steps from the renown Oval Office, which I did not see.

In Daley's office, the chief of staff and I chatted for a few minutes on a variety of subjects. He explained how President Obama wanted to talk with various reporters on the nation's economy.

A few minutes later, I was back in the briefing room, where I waited for Lehrich to escort me to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building immediately next door to the White House itself. The building is named in honor and memory of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

At about noon, Waterhouse, Vielhaber and I were escorted to the EOB, by Lehrich and others of his staff.  We wound through the cool hallways of the old building. On every wall, there are paintings or photographs of significant moments in America's history. It would be in this building we would meet President Obama. Our heels clicked as we walked through the historic hallways of the building, once the headquarters of the Department of War, later renamed the Department of State.

It was into a beautiful and ornate room we were led. The walls were covered with portraits of historic American public servants. Most of the picture frames bore gold paint. In a cabinet, there was a placque reading "Department of War," which must have graced the building years before it was reworked into the Executive Office Building.

The television camera setup in a small room was where the interview would take place. Three cameras, lights and the American and presidential flags were in place. One of the cameras would be focused on President Obama, a second one on me and a third would get a two-shot of us together.

There were key lights and back lights for both the president and for me, the interviewer. There was also a light positioned on the floor, behind the president's chair, which was aimed on the flag that would be over his left shoulder. I was then directed back to the larger adjoining room to wait for the president.

"The president is running a little late," said Lehrich, telling all in the room he had been in a meeting that had run longer than expected. I was to learn later that day, one of the meetings he had been in had been with his national security team, where the situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan had been covered.

Moments later, with several Secret Service agents surrounding him, President Obama entered the room where the interview would take place. Immediately, there was movement as those assisting the president directed him to where he would sit, although it was obvious from the flags behind the chair.

From my position in the room adjacent to the interview setting, I gazed through the opened door. Television technicians and others scurried about. A makeup artist was there, too. She touched up the president's television makeup. She appeared to have done his makeup many times before. She said little and went right to work.

In the room I was in, I looked for a mirror. Finding a large one on the wall, I pulled out my own makeup compact I carry for television and dabbed at my face. I wanted to look good, too, for the cameras.

With that, the door was widened and I was invited to the interview. I crossed the threshold, deftly stepping

around camera tripods and television lights and looked into the eyes of President Obama. Seated, he offered his hand, with an apology.

"Pardon my seat," said President Obama, "but I'm sitting on the tails of my jacket to keep my shoulder line smooth."

He smiled a welcoming look.

"I understand fully, Mr. President," I responded, aware of the practice of sitting on one's jacket.

Those of us who work in television news, facing studio cameras do the same thing to keep our jacket collars from riding up. It provides a smoother line across the shoulders, keeping jackets from puffing up around the neck.

I sat, straightening my jacket. For a couple of seconds, I gazed at the president of the United States. He gazed back as I positioned myself in the interview set. Then came a surprise question from the nation's leader.

"You guys in Cleveland over that LeBron thing yet?" asked President Obama with a grin on his face, making reference to the decision of star professional basketball player LeBron James to bolt from the Cleveland Cavs to play for the Miami Heat.

"We're working on it, Mr. President," I responded, smiling at the 44th chief executive of the United States who is an avid sports fan.

"Well, I think the Heat's going to take it," he said without hesitation. He beamed and uttered a chuckle. It was obvious he was keeping up with the NBA finals between LeBron's Miami team and the Dallas Mavericks.

With that, the camera operators said their cameras were rolling. I had been told I had eight minutes with the president and that I would be held to that amount of time for my questions. Most of my questions centered on the economy; the U.S. automobile manufacturing industry, which plays a big part of the economy of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio; and NASA Glenn Research Center, which employs thousand of workers in Cleveland.

Six minutes into the interview, a White House staffer, holding a stopwatch, signaled I had two minutes remaining. I figured it would be time enough for my last questions and his answer. For the next two minutes, the President answered, giving his thoughts on the importance of workers at NASA Glenn Research.

With the space shuttle program nearing an end, the President Obama said there would still be major need for space exploration and research. He spoke of the quest for the U.S. to venture into deeper space. He mentioned missions to Mars, adding the nation needed workers to provide that pathway into space.

As the staffer drew a circle in the air, wrapping me up, I knew I was to ask no more questions. Our time had expired. However, the president was still speaking. His people did not signal him of the time. When the president stopped speaking, we had gone a total of 10 minutes and one second.

"Thank you very much, Mr. President," I said, indicating we had run out of the agreed-upon time.

"Thank you so much" said President Obama. "I Enjoyed it," he added quickly, flashing a broad smile.

As he stood, his microphone was slipped off the lapel of his jacket. Within a step or two, still smiling, he and his Secret Service detail exited a door and walked at a quick pace down the historic hallway.

"I think you're right, Mr. President," I said to the president, who was still in sight. "It might be the Heat which will win," I said of the NBA championship series.

"It's the Heat," said President Obama, looking back over his shoulder as he walked with his several Secret Service escorts. In a second, they were gone from my view, although their footsteps echoed off the marble floors and ornate walls of the building where so many major decisions in both war and peace had been made by many presidents and members of their administrations during many generations.

Minutes later, I was back in the White House briefing room where I began to write the story of my interview with President Obama. Mike Vielhaber and Mike Waterhouse began working with the video of the interview, which had shot by photographers brought in to the White House for the interview with the most powerful man in the world. Vielhaber and Waterhouse, two technical wizards from my television station, were able to take the 10 minutes of video and, with my writing, cut it down to two separate stories of about  two minutes each.

Before Monday, June 6, 2011, would be complete, standing on the north lawn of the White House, I would address the camera aimed at me, sending signals back to my television station, WEWS in Cleveland, and the rest of Northeast Ohio.

Later, our story would be picked up by other news organizations around the country.

Standing in front of the White House that gleamed in the sun of early evening, I recounted what the president had said on the several subjects we covered during our time together. My purpose was not to give my personal viewpoints on what he said, but to report only what he said and of the opportunity I had received to interview the man who lived in the White House.

The news anchors back in Cleveland, talking to me live via satellite

about my recorded interview of the president, got a chuckle out of the part of the story about LeBron James and the NBA championship series.

It was a memorable day filled with many hours of preparation for an interview with the president. Still, for a local news reporter, the interview was memorable. It was an interesting time in the White House to be one of the few to have a one-on-one interview with Barack Obama, president of the United States.


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