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Presidential memories while Obama takes oath

by Brad FuquaWestern News
| January 21, 2009 11:00 PM

We don’t know what lies in our future. But while watching the inauguration Tuesday of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, it’s easy to see that Americans have great hope that positive change is upon us.

Over my career in this business, I’ve had the opportunity to cover three of the past four presidents. My first presidential experience occurred when I was still in college back in Nebraska. While working as an intern during the summer of 1987, President Reagan made an appearance in North Platte. I made the trip with the then-editor of the McCook Daily Gazette.

My boss had received a press credential for coverage but as a lowly intern, I just went along for the ride. We pushed our way through the crowd at the Buffalo Bill Wild West Arena and the editor went on ahead to a stand that was set up for photographers so they could get a clear shot of the president.

After maybe a half hour, he came back to give me the opportunity to shoot photos of Reagan myself. I took his press pass and headed toward the photographer’s stand. As a rookie, I wasn’t very aggressive back in those days and couldn’t find a spot to work. Finally, I saw a somewhat clear area near the yellow tape that is used to keep the crowd back.

I got down on one knee and took several photos of Reagan before a member of the Secret Service motioned for me to get back on the photographer’s stand. I complained that there wasn’t any room there and that led to him asking to see my press credential. He started asking questions and I decided to tell him the truth – that the credential wasn’t mine but belonged to my boss. He just told me to leave the area. I’m not sure if I would get the same treatment today with the way security has since increased.

After developing the film, I discovered that I got a great shot of Reagan so it really didn’t matter.

During the years of George H.W. Bush, I worked strictly as a sports writer. By the time I took a job as editor of the Grand Canyon News in Arizona, President Clinton was getting close to the end of his two terms.

Clinton made a visit to the Grand Canyon in January 2000 to sign a proclamation to create three new national monuments and to expand a fourth. His visit represented my most extensive coverage of a president that lasted two days and nearly resulted in a helicopter ride with the most powerful man in the country.

Clinton arrived at night with Air Force One’s landing at the Grand Canyon airport. The media had to arrive a couple of hours before the plane was scheduled to land. We went through tight security, had our bags and equipment searched and we were penned up like cattle where we had to stand until Clinton arrived.

Finally, Air Force One landed and I took several photos of the president as he made his way off the plane to meet and greet then-park superintendent Rob Arnberger.

Through my job as editor, I had formed a friendship and respect with Arnberger and he suggested to the White House that I be given a seat on Clinton’s helicopter for his trip over to the North Rim to sign those proclamations. With a weak stomach, I hesitated at the suggestion because I pictured myself vomiting on the president’s shoes. But I said that sounded great and my name was submitted.

As it turned out, the White House gave the spot to a photographer from the New York Times or Washington Post or one of those types.

I did provide coverage of a Clinton speech to members of the park community, including Grand Canyon School students, on the South Rim. This was an invite-only event in a more intimate setting.

A few years later, I covered President George W. Bush while he was on a visit to Flagstaff, which is located about 90 miles away from the Grand Canyon. I didn’t plan on going through the hassle of covering another presidential event – because it really does try your patience with the hours of waiting and security measures. But the Grand Canyon Student Council was supposed to be attending and I wanted to get photos of those kids for the paper.

So, I went through the roughly four-hour process of waiting in traffic, going through security and finding a spot to get a clear shot of the kids. Unfortunately, the students never made it. Their school bus got off at the wrong exit – there was only one route into the area where the president was speaking – and the students didn’t make it in time.

In my position here in our remote area of northwestern Montana, I would venture to guess that I probably won’t have an opportunity to provide any sort of coverage involving Obama. Out of the presidents I have covered, I would give Reagan the nod as the most moving speaker. He had that crowd hanging on his every word while blending in his sense of humor.

So, we begin a new era in our country’s history with Obama’s arrival in the White House. Will we see America heading in a new direction? Will the economy at last turn around and flourish? If so, how long will it take before we experience the results? Will our country remain safe from terrorist threats?

Those are among the questions on my mind. Ultimately, peace and prosperity sounds pretty good.

(Brad Fuqua is managing editor of The Western News. He can be reached via e-mail at thewesternnews@gmail.com ).