Capitol Hill Students Meet President Obama, Credentialed by The White House Media Corp

In February 2014, the White House contacted me and offered to provide me with an opportunity to bring a student to President Obama's transportation speech at the newly refurbished St. Paul Union Depot on February 26. While it was hard to provide just one name for consideration, Amanda Son, a 7th grade student kept popping into my head. Her inquisitive nature and her persistence for always digging deeper and investigating made her an ideal choice. The following day, the White House Press Corp contacted me and offered two media credentials, so I could cover the Presidents' visit, with one student, from the perspective of White House Press Pool journalists. This meant that I would not only be able to bring Amanda, but I would also be able to bring two additional students with me. Mickies Kiros and Melissa Elmer, both sixth grade Minnesota Studies students popped into my mind right away. Again, they are intuitive thinkers, diligent researches and I knew that would both be honored to come to the event. 

While we were there, Amanda, Mickies and Mellisa were tasked with the responsibility of documenting history through the eyes of middle school students. They were provided with a camera and told to photograph the many different angles of the event, from the people in the crowd, to the journalists there to record the event and of course, the President. Their ultimate goal would be to document and preserve history through their perspective. While Mickies and Melissa were VIP guests that had to stay within a certain section, Amanda and I were granted access to the areas reserved for the media. This meant that we were able to stand one of two different media platforms, no more than 40 feet from the President. We were also given a table for our gear and for production purposes. We were able to meet other journalists from around the Twin Cities and also several members of the national media. Amanda was able to learn a bit about what it is like covering politics at the local, state and national level from Pat Kessler, political reporter from WCCO. We stood next to him and the WCCO crew during the President's speech, and five feet from the main camera that carried the live feed for the White House. Amanda, Mickies and Melissa were all interviewed by several different news outlets about the experiences that they had, what it means to be at the speech and what it was like covering the event as a member of the credentialed media. 

It was a tremendous opportunity for three Capitol HIll students to see the President of the United states this close, and an experience I will always remember. 


The St. Paul Public Schools wrote up a brief story about our being credentialed for the Presidential Town Hall and visit to Lake Harriet Band Shell. 


For the second time in four months, the White House contacted me to see if I would have interest in bringing students with me to see the President as he made two appearances in Minneapolis on June 26 and June 27. This time, they were willing to credential three of my students, in addition to me for both events, meaning I would be able to bring six students. I reached out to my contact with the White House Media Affairs to see if it would be ok if one of the students was actually my 7 year old son. They said they had no problem with this, so I got to tell my son that he got to go see the President. He immediately asked if we were going to meet him, but I had to inform him that we didn't get to actually meet him, but instead, we were to receive special badges so we could  "pretend we were in the media". Little did I know that we actually would  have an opportunity to meet the President! 

CiCi Kintopf and Montana Pelleteir, two of my Minnesota Studies sixth grade students, joined my son. We headed out to Minnehaha Falls in the early morning, knowing that we wanted to be some of the first to arrive. While I have been to events such as these before, CiCi and Montana had no idea what to expect, especially in regards to the massive amounts of security precautions they were about to witness and experience. While many streets were shut down and off limits to "regular" citizens, we were able to go inside the secured perimeter and even received preferred parking!

Before we were allowed inside the event area, we decided to walk around the grounds. The only people allowed in Minnehaha Park at the time were a few media crews that were setting up their live feed mobile vans, Secret Service personnel and dozens of Minneapolis police and state troopers. We saw bicycle officers, officers on horseback, and numerous police officers walking the grounds, in addition to the state patrol helicopter hovering above. 

I had informed them via email the night before, "You don't think being a credentialed member of the White House Press Corp comes with no strings attached... do you?!?! I would also like you to consider bringing a very small notebook or notepad so you can play the part of a real journalist. So, bring a pen or pencil as well. You just may interview a few people and ask why they are there, how they got their tickets, how long they waited in line, etc. Remember, you are members of the press! After all, you are their to record history! So, I'm going to expect you soak up the entire atmosphere. You should really be able to describe the entire experience to those who want to know what you experienced... from the setting, to the people there, to the role you played, etc."

CiCi and Montana knew that they were going to have to act the part of journalists when we got inside the event, so I encouraged them to practice their interviewing skills on several officers. They were both a little nervous, so I told them that it was no different than conducting the research they did for their History Day projects. I told them I would take the lead on the first interview, but they needed to learn quickly, because they would be taking the lead the rest of the day. And they did! After talking with several officers, we moved on to the My Fox 9 crew, where they generously gave us a tour of their mobile broadcast center. 

It was about time for the media to be allowed to enter, so we lined up all of our gear so the Secret Service security detail could go through our bags. They were far more meticulous this go around than they were in February at Union Depot. The girls were amazed at how long it took them to go through each bag. Connor was more impressed with the German Sheppard that made his way to our bags next. He laughed as the dogs were "sniffing our bags, dad!"

As we entered the grounds, we quickly took our place under a covered tent, with several other members of the media. We toured the areas that we were allowed to go. We were not that far from where the President would be speaking. One of the media risers was 60 feet away (directly in front) while the other media riser was less than 15 feet from the stage! While we waited for the President to arrive, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman stopped by to talk to CiCi, Montana and Connor. The girls quickly turned on their journalistic instincts and started asking him questions about what it was like to run a big city, what he was expecting the President to say and more. He generously took his time answering all of their questions and even posed for a couple of photographs. It was starting to sink in to them that this experience was in fact real and that they were in a unique position that not many other people get to experience, especially people their age. 

Prior to the President's arrival, we met Amanda Lucidon. She is one five Presidential photographers who travels with wither the President or the First Lady. The girls were very comfortable by this time asking questions, and they started to interview Amanda. They learned about how she became a White House photographer and the adventures she had taken with the President. One of her favorite locations was a recent trip to China with the First Lady and Mr and Mrs. Obama's two daughters. "Seeing the Great Wall and photographing the family was really neat," she told the girls. She continued to tell them about her experiences photographing for the New York Times, The Smithsonian and some of her other business ventures. She even gave the girls a few tips for how to shoot, what to look for and who to look for. For example, she pointed to Pete Souza, the President's personal photographer. "When you see him, get your camera ready, because he'll (the President) be coming right behind him.

CiCi and Montana took turns with the camera to document the event through their eyes. While one had the camera, the other was taking notes. Both CiCi  and Montana quickly maneuvered around the press perimeter to capture images of the President and the crowd. A sample of their photographs show that they knew what to be looking for and how to capture the mood! 

While the President was talking, a Secret Service Agent bent down on one knee and told Connor to hold out his hand. Connor did, and the agent place a Presidential medallion in his hand. ) Connor was beyond excited. The agent smiled and walked back to his post, which was just to the side of the media platform and about 15 feet from the stage the President was standing on. Connor said "Thank you for the medallion" and quickly went back to an area where he could start drawing his new prized possession. The agent told me that the President likes when they hand those out to little kids in the crowd and thought this might be the first time he ever gave one out to "a member of the media"

About 10 minutes later, the same agent came up to me and asked "Would your son like to meet the President?" I said, "boy, would he!" He then asked if the two girls with me would like to meet the President as well, so I had to track them down, as they were photographing him from a different vantage points. I told Montana to meet me by the side riser immediately. She had a puzzled look on their face. CiCi was liking the angle she found, near the main media riser, as it provided for some great views of the President interacting with members of the town hall crowd. I told her "You are going to get a much closer view. Follow me." She said she really liked this angle, but when I said "trust me, come here," she did not argue. When we arrived, the Secret Service agent said "I hear you guys might be interested in meeting the President." Their eyes opened wide and their mouths dropped just like you see in cartoons. The agent then turned around and smiled. Behind him was White House Photographer Amanda Lucidon, smiling and waiving. She and the agent brought us to the side of the Town Hall, where a group of Secret Service agents and members of the President's Advance team was standing. They talked to a few folks and within seconds, they were leading us past the security line. By this point, several dozen members of the audience were watching us, trying to figure out how we were able to stand in a secure area and wondering just what we were going to be able to do.

Several minutes passed and the President finished his town hall and started to make his way around the front of the stage area, shaking hands. We were brought to a special area behind the stage, behind security lines. It was incredible to see that we were the only people outside of maybe three dozen secret service agents that was in the area. We were old that we would be able to shale his hands, but would most likely not have time to ask questions or get an autograph.

Luck was on our side though. The President came right up to us and the Secret Service detail let him know that they were student journalists here to cover the event. He stopped, shook our hands and said, I "Do you guys want to ask me one quick question? Give you an exclusive?" CiCi stepped right up tot he plate and asked "What is it like being the President?" You can view her question and the President's response at the 4:26 mark of the West Wing Week "POTUS Replies", which is a weekly update of what happened with the President and Vice President. I also posted a tout of the encounter. CiCi was even quoted in a Pioneer Press articleabout the event.

The President shook my hand after saying goodbye to the kids and said "You're a great teacher. Keep it up." He then signed each of our White House Press Pool media passes, a keepsake that I'm pretty sure each one of us will treasure for a long time. We finished up the event by chatting with United States Congressman Keith Ellison before and started to make our way back to our car. We felt pretty cool as we saw the President's motorcade and talked with a few more officers before seeing the line of people that showed up near the park's entrance hoping to catch a glimpse of the man we just met. 


Friday's speech by President Obama at the Lake Harriet Band Shell in Minneapolis was scheduled for 10:50am. This meant I needed to pick up my three students who would be accompanying me for the day earlier than I did on Thursday. Rhetta Power, Claire Weissman and Joe Kase, all students who will be entering eighth grade this fall, had been students in my American History class this past school year. All three students had a knack at asking tough questions, digging deeper and looking for possible motives the individuals or leaders we studied might have had to inspire their actions. I knew that they would certainly appreciate the scope of this event, and the magnitude of a sitting President staying two days in a row in the same city. I filled them in on what the procedure would be like for the day, and a few things that they should expect.

We drove to the Walker in Minneapolis as that was the staging area for members of the media to congregate at. As we waited for our media bus to arrive (one had left at 7:15, we were waiting for the 8:15 shuttle), I showed Claire and Rhetta the camera that they would be using throughout the day. Joe had brought along a Nikon, and was pretty familiar with how to use it.
It was pretty evident that most of the media had taken the earlier bus, as there were only four other individuals on our bus. One of them was John Croman, a political reporter from Kare 11. After building up the courage, Rhetta and Claire started asking questions about what it is like covering an event that the President was at. He described how there was a sense of anticipation, but also frustration as you wait and wait for the President to show up. He then described the hustle and bustle of trying to edit everything in a very tight time frame and package it for different newscasts. He talked about how social media has changed the landscape of the media and journalism in general. All the while, Claire and Rhetta were feverishly taking notes, hanging on every word Croman was sharing.
As we got closer to the event, Joe noticed the ever increasing police presence. Not every street was shut down, but they saw the barricades and knew it was only a matter of time until no one was allowed to pass without special permission.

As we arrived at the Lake Harriet Bandshell, there was a long line of people waiting to get through the security checkpoint. Claire asked if we needed to go to the end of the line. I chuckled a little and said "nope, we get special access!" We bypassed the long lines waiting to see the President, but still needed to get through our security check. We received our White House media credentials and proceeded towards the security checkpoint. 
Claire and Rhetta made it through just fine, but the Secret Service was going over every square inch of Joe's backpack. Within thirty seconds, there were three Secret Service agents hovering around Joe's pack and taking everything out and placing stuff on the table. Joe was getting visibly nervous. I told him he had nothing to worry about, providing he isn't packing anything illegal. Secret Service heard me say that, and immediately called over another agent. Joe was almost in a panic, so I calmed him down a little. They started opening up the small notebook that he brought with him, thumbing through every single page. They would stop from time to time to analyze what was on the page. At one point, one of the agents showed the page to Joe and asked him to explain what the drawing were and what they meant. Joe said it was his little brother's notebook. The agent said, "Uh hmmmmm. Likely answer." He then called for yet another agent to come over. This time, the newest agent looked at me and said, "Oh, is this the tall guy you wanted me to harass a little?" The agents and I started to laugh and Claire and Rhetta even started to crack a smile through their nervousness. What they didn't know is that I had spoken with the agents the day before and told them to give the tall student with me a tough time. Joe finally realized that I had set him up and he started to laugh. All in good fun, right?
As we finally cleared our security point, we had an escort to lead us to the media area. We were approximately 75 feet from the main stage that the President would be speaking at. It was a bit further away than the previous day, but the view of the band shell adorn with several American flags on the stage next to the podium and aglass backdrop providing views of Lake Harriet in the background made for a spectacular setting. I pointed out that all boat traffic on Lake Harriet and nearby Lake Calhoun was halted while the President was in the vicinity. I also described how flight patterns would have to be altered as well while the President was on stage.
I introduced Claire, Joe and Rhetta to several members of the media that were present. Fred Melo of the Pioneer Press, Rachel Stassen-Burger from the Star Tribune, Brian Bakst from the Associated Press and Tom Scheck from MPR. We toured the media area, which was a bit more restricted compared to the town hall even the day prior, but my students didn't seem to mind

Then, the three youngest credentialed journalists went to work. Joe started photographing the people in the crowd while Rhetta and Claire made their way around the media perimeter, talking to individuals that came to listen to the President. Before the President took the stage, Senator Amy Klobuchar andGovernor Mark Dayton addressed the crowd. The three took turns as photographers on the media stage when President Obama took the stage, 45 minutes early! We noticed that there was still a line of people outside the event waiting to get in when the President took the stage.

The events on Friday were more rushed than the Thursday town hall event, but we still held out hope that we would be able to meet the President, just as CiCi, Montana and my son Connor did the day before. Amanda Lucidon, the White House photographer was also at the event at Lake Harriet. I had received an email from her prior to the President arriving, telling me that she was hopeful that the President could meet with us for a few minutes. I didn't share this with the Claire, Joe and Rhetta at the time, because I didn't want to get their hopes up in case it didn't work out. Amanda quickly introduced herself to the girls but didn't have too much time to chat during this event. I was told to try to make my way to the area about 30 yards from the President's motorcade and ask for an agent (who I had met on Thursday and whom I have been in contact with a few times since the President's visit), but unfortunately, the President was just getting into the motorcade by the time we got down to the area. Amanda emailed me a few minutes later to say she was sorry it didn't work out this time. We too have contacted each other a few times since the President's visits. It has been really cool to see her photographic skills.
The Presidential motorcade sped off quickly and we waited a few minutes for the crowds to start dispersing. We headed back to catch a bus back to the media staging area. We didn't wait for the media bus though. Instead, we hopped on another bus that was taking riders back to the same general area. Rhetta, although she didn't know it right away, sat next to Minnesota State Representative Connie Bernardy. The two of them struck up a conversation very quickly. Rhetta asked about the President's speech and her views of the event and his presidency. The representative, in turn, kind of interviewed Rhetta, asking her about education and life as a student. It was great to eavesdrop just a little on the conversation!
It had been a long morning and we were all starving, so we stopped by Matt's, a famous Minneapolis restaurant were the President had a jucy lucy the previous day, but there was a line that went outside the door. So we decided to head to a St. Paul juicy lucy spot. The four of us talked about what the day was like, what the most exciting things were, relived Joe's run in with the secret service, described what surprised us about the event, and a little bit about politics in general. It was definitely an experience that I will cherish for a long time. I hope they will too.

Below is a recap of the day from Rhetta;

It all started with a phone call, I had been waiting in the car for my dad and brother, when I noticed my dad talking on the phone just outside my car door, when he got in I asked him “who were you talking to?” he replied “Mr.Westpfahl, he’s inviting you to Obama’s speech!” I was ecstatic, I called my mom to tell her the news, she was even more excited than I was! Over the next few days, I planned and packed everything  I might need, thought of questions I might ask and how I would react If I got the chance to meet the president, even so, I was no where prepared for how amazing this experience would be.

I arrived at Joe(Another kid coming to see Obama)’s house just seconds before Claire(The other girl coming) and soon after Mr.Westpfahl pulled up in a new-looking , shiny, black car. We all complimented him on the car before getting in and heading over to a car park where some school busses were parked, we were confused until Mr.Westy explained that these busses were taking people to the speech as either parking was going to be difficult or that there was a point where people couldn’t bring cars, he also explained that we were to ride on a special, press bus with other journalists/photographers etct.  Then showed us a super cool camera that we could use.

When we got on the bus we talked awhile before I remembered we were supposed to be reporters and asked Mr.Westpfahl if we should “Interview those guys over there” He said it sounded like a great idea and immediately introduced himself and us to the four men sitting at the front of the bus, we then awkwardly set upon the task of asking random strangers questions. It actually turned out to be kind of fun even though the man we were interviewing (John H. Croman) gave us some pretty lengthy answers to some of the questions!

When we got off the bus, we got our press badges and went through a special security line, some of the guards gave Joe a hard time, it was hilarious! We went through and stopped under a huge tent filled with people on their laptops or other electronics, Mr.W explained that this was the press tent and introduced us to members of the press in there. Soon after, we started taking photos, lot’s and lot’s of photos! Claire and I also interviewed a mother and her son and 2 female college students on things like “why did you come to this event?”, “What is something you feel Obama should address?” and others.

When Obama finally began to speak, he grabbed your attention, he made you listen with the way he spoke and strung together his words, it was incredible, one of the best opportunities of my life. On the bus back to the parking lot, I sat next to representative Connie Bernardy and also interviewed her.

Overall, that was the best educational trip I have ever gone on, and I’m so grateful I got the chance to go see him.

By: Rhetta Power