THE WRITTEN WARD - Five minutes with the president

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As his term comes to an end I thought I'd offer my own memories of a moment with President Obama.

People often ask me if I get nervous when I do my job. The answer is no. It’s something I’m used to, and I’ve been doing it for so long that it generally doesn’t really faze me. There are a few exceptions, and this is the biggest of them.

The most nervous I have ever been in my nearly 28-year TV career was when it was time to interview the president of the United States. It wouldn’t matter who it was, though it happened to be President Barack Obama.

with president

Here’s why.

In these days of instant media – I knew that anything that happened in my five minutes with President Obama could very quickly go viral. On June 16, 2012 I knew the entire unedited five-minute interview would be sent out to every CBS affiliate immediately after it was over. There was a pool cameraman in the West Wing’s Cabinet Room. His video would be given immediately to a technician who would send it out by satellite to my station and just about any other station that wanted it, around the country and around the world. The odds were pretty high that no station would really want it, or use any of it, except KKTV. That is, unless something went horribly, embarrassingly wrong. Then everyone would use it!

My concern was that I would formulate a question wrong, or maybe misinterpret his response and ask an inappropriate follow up. Or, what If I just got tongue-tied and couldn’t smoothly or eloquently ask my prepared questions? What if I somehow said something that made him angry? You never know!

It turns out none of that happened, but the possibilities made me very nervous.

My visit for a one-on-one with POTUS was certainly nothing unique. The Obama administration invited local anchors to the White House several times a year for these interview opportunities. There were six or seven of us there that day as part of the ongoing program. It was very special to me, but I was nothing special to get the chance.

on south lawn

The day included a chance to meet various White House staffers and advisors. We talked to a cabinet member or two. We mingled with our TV counterparts from around the country as we all waited for our individual time.

11 News Chief Photojournalist Mike Petkash was there with me. He did not shoot the Obama interview itself, but we did other interviews in D.C. and some live reports from inside and outside the White House grounds before and after the interview. We also got a tour of the house itself. That was a wonderful experience.


live with petkash

For a couple of hours before the interviews started we were all kept on the South Lawn. There was a tent set up to shade us and our equipment – but Washington DC on a sunny day in June was very hot and humid – especially in my dark blue suit.

tight tent lawn

That helps to explain the sheen of sweat on me in my pictures with POTUS – notice no hint of presidential perspiration. About 10 minutes before my time slot Mike and I were brought in to the West Wing. We stood in a small hallway next to a desk with our escorts. Five minutes later we were taken to a spot right outside the Cabinet Room for another five minutes. We were on deck. Those five minutes were the most nervous minutes of my career. My planned questions were planted in my head – no way I was going to walk in there with notes! But I was worried I would forget what I wanted to ask, and I was very worried that I would commit some faux pas with the president and quickly go viral for all the wrong reasons.

in white house

I was warned that there would be a staff member standing behind the president giving me hand signals so I’d know how much time I had left. Then the reporter before me finished and it was my turn. I walked in to the Cabinet Room and there he was. The leader of the free world was a few feet away. I walked over and told him I was Don Ward from KKTV 11 News in Colorado Springs and it was an honor to meet him.

shaking hands

He smiled and shook my hand and we chatted for a moment about his visits for the Air Force Academy graduation.

If the previous five minutes were the most nervous of my career (life), the next five were the fastest! I asked my first prepared question, got it out without a stumble and felt like I managed to come off as eloquent and maybe even comfortable. His answer was twice as much of both of those qualities. I barely remember what happened next. I asked a couple more questions. He is a seasoned speaker and his answers got long – so I didn’t get to all my questions. The staffer behind him was flashing fingers at me – three, then two, then one. The he gave me the single twirling finger that in TV terms means wrap it up.

It was over in a flash. I could feel myself perspiring all over (one doesn’t sweat in front of one’s chief executive). I shook his hand again, thanked him for the opportunity and told him what an honor it was to meet him.

He was kind and friendly and chatted a moment or two beyond our time limit.

I have been in the presence of other presidents, in the same room within a few feet of Bill Clinton and both presidents Bush. There is an aura of importance and charisma that they all seem to share. It seems that it would be hard to reach that position without having an inherent likeability. President Obama had it too. He was taller than I expected, and nicer than I had even hoped. He seemed very powerful, yet approachable at the same time. I felt like our five-minute conversation was genuine.

I watched the interview later on a computer on the South Lawn of the White House. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t bad and it certainly wasn’t going to go viral because I had made some horrible mistake.
It was a career highlight for me to interview the leader of the free world. To this day I can recall exactly how nervous I felt in the moments right before it. I’m grateful to have been so uncomfortable for such a wonderful reason!

cbs news webpage

I’d be honored to interview President Trump if the opportunity comes along.
We’ll talk again soon.

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south lawn dog