President Barack Obama speaking at Hill Air Force Base. Photo taken by a computer-hoisting reporter.
President Barack Obama blew through Utah on Thursday night and into Friday morning like only he could. Freeways were shut down for his motorcade, Mormon Church brass met with him and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker was photographed giving the commander in chief a Utah Utes basketball jersey.
Officially, the president came to praise the nation’s economy, specifically when it comes to solar energy. He did this, uttering around eight minutes of words, on a raised platform in a dirt field at Hill Air Force Base in front of a shiny array of solar panels.
The president’s visit to Utah—his first since stumping for the nation’s top job back in 2007—was a big deal, even if he didn’t have much to say publicly about Utah itself. He noted that Hill Air Force Base, which generates around 20 percent of its power from renewable sources, is a leader in this field. And he praised Becker for his green thinking.
But the president said nothing about the festering sore of anti-Obama and federal government rhetoric that has so far prompted Utah’s elected elites to deny more than 100,000 of the state’s neediest residents health care coverage through Medicaid-like expansion.
Nor did the president mention the millions of dollars Utah is spending in an attempt to wrest around 31 million acres of public land from the federal government, so it can be managed by Utah officials, not the thousands of Bureau of Land Management officials who live in Utah.
He did, however, spend some time speaking to Gov. Gary Herbert about these issues. On Thursday night, after Obama’s plane landed at Hill, Herbert rode along on the president’s motorcade, where the pair chit-chatted about health care reform, America’s public lands and education.
Very few actual, real, normal Utahns got to see the president. In fact, it would have been difficult to get near the same air that the president breathed.
On Thursday night, after meeting with LDS officials, the president rested his head inside the Sheraton Hotel. Why the Sheraton Hotel and not the grander Grand America, or the less grand Little America hotels? I don’t know for certain, but if I was king of the secret service, I wouldn’t want a UTA Trax train humming out in front of Obama’s hotel all night long.
But instead of a UTA train, the legions of microphone-wearing tough dudes that guard Obama chose UTA buses—empty ones that lined the north and south sides of the hotel. Along 500 south, a one-way speed-strip that dumps onto Interstate 15, 16 UTA buses were lined up bumper to bumper, creating an airy, two-lane buffer between the hotel parking lot and the people flying down 500 south.
The volume of out-of-service buses answered a lot of questions. First off, everyone likes to poke fun of Utah’s wide streets, which were reportedly crafted to so horse-drawn carriages could flip u-turns with ease. And Utah’s city blocks are pretty long—it turns out exactly long enough for 16 UTA buses to fit along one of its lengths.
We also now know that UTA cannot claim that it doesn’t have enough buses to expand and reinstall the bus services that it slashed during this most recent decade of the train.
Since it only snowed a time or two in Salt Lake City this winter, the city’s fleet of dump trucks that would normally be peppering the streets with salt got a little bit more use before being mothballed for summer. On the east and west sides of the hotel, these dump trucks were parked, like the buses, kissing bumpers.
I found out on Thursday morning that the White House press folks had approved me for a credential to hear the president’s speech.
I’ve been a newspaper reporter off and on for six years, and I pride myself on wearing a well-worn pair of Wrangler jeans to fancy events, like the governor’s monthly televised news conference. On most other days I cover my undercarriage with brown or black Carhartt dungarees. The last time I put on a sport coat was a couple of months ago for a funeral. Before that, the occasion was my wedding. That was eight years ago.
But on Thursday night, as I thought of all of those dump trucks and buses that made it seem like a miniature war zone was going erupt downtown, the first epiphany I had was to trim my mustache. I guess I did this because I’m tired of being self conscious about eating. Half of my meal usually ends up in my beard. Another reason, though, was so that I looked snazzy for the president.
I’m not scared to admit that I get a little star-struck now and again. But it doesn’t happen very often—especially not for politicians. Back in 2008 or so, I got nervous during a phone interview with the actress Cate Blanchett. I don’t know shit about movies, and I hadn’t seen either of the ones that Blanchett was starring in that had bought her a spot at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (I worked at a newspaper called the Santa Barbara Daily Sound). So, perhaps my lack of preparation spiked my nerves.
The next time I got nervous was in a press line at another film festival event, where Kirk Douglas was being honored. Man, I dig Kirk Douglas. As usual, I was in jeans and the rest of the press folks were in suits. I didn’t have anything to ask Douglas, but I wanted to tell him something. So, when he walked up, I told him: “My favorite movie of yours is Lonely are the Brave.” He looked at me pretty hard, shook my hand and, in his shaky voice (he’d had a stroke,) said pretty sternly: “That was my favorite movie, too.” Lonely are the Brave is based on the Edward Abbey novel, The Brave Cowboy.
That was a reporting highlight for me, even though I got back to the office, cracked open a can of Coors Banquet Beer and didn’t have a damn thing to write.
So it was an odd sensation on Thursday night as I groomed myself and contemplated seeing how that sport jacket was doing.
The alarm went off Friday morning and I woke like a champ. For the first time in a decade, I hopped right out of bed. I pulled my belt through the loops of my Wrangler jeans, and traded them in for a pair of black polyester Wrangler dress pants. I found my pointy cowboy boots in the closet and unzipped the plastic Macy’s bag that houses my sport coat. I even tracked down the greatest western, pearly buttoned shirt I’ve ever seen (also a wedding garment.) I topped it all off with my favorite brown necktie patterned with a bunch seagulls.
I looked pretty sharp. But when my daughter woke up, just as I was getting ready to leave, she asked if I was going to wear a hat. I told her I wasn’t, and she said I should so that Obama wouldn’t have to look at my bald head.
My daughter is 8 years old and she loves bald jokes. At school she draws family pictures and she always makes a point to place only a few strands of hair atop my dome—just like Homer, she says. Doh!
I sped northbound on Interstate 15, running on-time, toward Hill Air Force Base. When I arrived at the entrance to the museum, which was being guarded by a cop, it felt really good to tell him that I was with the newspaper. He hesitated a little, but let me in.
There were four buses waiting in the parking lot. I hopped on one. A few minutes later a lady boarded and said, “You all know that this bus is going to the flight line?” Everyone seemed OK with this, but it made me nervous. I hopped off the bus and chased her down.
“I don’t know what flight line means,” I told her.
“It means that bus is going to the president’s plane,” she said.
I told her that I didn’t want to go to the plane, and she helped me onto the correct bus.
Just before departing, a reporter wearing a yellow and black jacket sat beside me. I’d never met this man before—I hadn’t meant most of the media folks on that bus. But this guy, R. N. Goldberger, had a silver mustache and he got really excited when he heard that I worked for City Weekly.
He told me he used to run a newspaper, back in the 1970s, called Salt Flat News. People say stuff all the time, and you never know what might come of it. Goldberger was kind of like that. I couldn’t tell if I should really listen hard, or save up my ears for the President. But like most people, Goldberger was spot on.
He talked a little bit about a secret hydrogen bomb test in the west desert, but then he started to tell me about the time he covered a visit to Utah from President Ronald Reagan. Goldberger said Reagan stayed at a hotel in Ogden, and it was a sunny day. The resulting story, he said, was one of the finest he’d ever written. It was “tough to top,” Goldberger said.
Goldberg was accompanied on the Reagan story by a cameraman that only used Leicas. “He wore about three or four Leicas,” Goldberger said.
Goldberger likes City Weekly, but he thinks the layout of the paper sucks. Back in his newspapering days, Goldberger said he created beautiful layouts. To be precise, “eye candy.” “If I can’t create eye candy, I don’t want to do it,” he said.
Goldberger asked if I had a briefcase, and looked a little disappointed when I told him I did not. But he reached into his briefcase and pulled out a yellowed copy of the Salt Flat News from February, 1972. In the upper left corner of the paper, where The New York Times has a text box that says “All the news that’s fit to print,” Goldberger’s paper says “25 cents, 30 cents in New York.” Across the bottom it says: “The only paper in the world that gives a damn about what happens on the Salt Flats.”
He told me I could keep the copy, as a gift. Then he got out another copy, flipping to a photo of a beautiful woman in a bikini. “We specialized in hobos, train wrecks, beautiful women and dead animals,” he said. “It was news about nothing. We specialized in nothingness.”
The evidence of Goldberger’s involvement with this publication is right there in black and white on page three: Editor—Richard Nahum Goldberger.
The bus lurched across the expanse that is Hill Air Force Base, coming to a halt at what looked like a dirt pullout. In fact, it was a short dirt road that dead-ended at a large array of solar panels, which base officials say produces enough electricity to power 30 homes, and, along with other renewable energy efforts at the base, has helped slash the electricity bill by $750,000.
After de-boarding the bus, we were told to place our backpacks, purses, computers and other items in a line on the ground. As the humans waited in line to get a go over by a wand-wielding secret service agent, a pretty nice looking bomb-sniffing dog did his thing to our gear. At one point, the dog stuck his muzzle deep into a fancy leather bag. I thought we might get some action, but it turns out some TV dude had packed a bunch of snacks.
The president’s little raised stage had been erected in front of the solar panels. Some chairs were set up directly in front of his lectern, and behind that was a raised platform for cameras. Off to the side tables were set up for reporters. I caught a pretty good seat, maybe 100 feet or so from the lectern—closer than I would let me to the president, but it wasn’t up to me.
A pair of reporters from the Deseret News sat to my left. An Associated Press reporter sat on my right. I have this weird thing about AP reporters. I like them, but I also envy them. After college, I applied for dozens of AP jobs, and never even got a response saying that they received my application. I just couldn’t crack their code. It doesn’t really matter now. I would have flunked that AP style test anyway.
These reporters were busy. They were focused. The AP reporter had a microphone, a laptop, two devices that looked like iPhones, one of which she plugged into her computer and gained access to the internet. Turns out, there was no wireless internet out in that field, so I was the only reporter that couldn’t feverishly file a story from the spot. And, since I don’t have a smart phone, I couldn’t tweet the president’s every word out to my 172 twitter followers. Their loss, not mine.
This technological divide that separated my colleagues and I allowed me to kick back and scope the place out.
Along the western flank, a fleet of snow plows, most of them brand new looking, were parked in a row that brought back memories of the UTA buses. The TV guys and gals, because half of their battle is capturing the sound of Obama’s voice, made a secret service guy talk into the president’s microphone for extended periods of time.
After a while, the secret service guys traded off doing sound check. One of them just said “check 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7” over and over. The other guy read a news story about a guy who was lost at sea for 66 days.
At about 10:30 a.m., dignitaries who came to just listen in on the speech began to arrive. Becker was there, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams was too. Missing in action was any sign of any local Republican lawmakers. An aide to Sen. Mike Lee was present, but the only flesh-and-blood national elected leader in the audience was Utah’s 1st District Congressman Rob Bishop.
At 11 a.m. sharp, just on time, several black SUVs came screaming up the dirt road. These vehicles suspiciously moved in an odd pattern, and secret service agents came spilling out. In addition to the armed guards was the national press corps, which travels with Obama. They all came sprinting (definitely not athletes), to capture an image of Obama as he walked among the solar panels on a brief tour before addressing the crowd.
Then, all of a sudden, Obama appeared from behind one of the panels. He strode onto the platform and began to talk. All of the press people, even the ones who didn’t have pro cameras, were snapping photos with their phones. I held my computer up in the air and turned it away from me so that I, too, could take a picture. It worked out, but the secret service dude closest to me didn’t look stoked. How many reporters have held their entire computer up in the air to take a picture of Obama? Probably not that many.
By the time we all sat back down to take notes, Obama was saying that the solar industry has created jobs 10 times faster than other sectors of the economy. And he said he hopes to train 75,000 workers in the solar industry by 2020, many of them veterans.
Before I could even get any good notes down, Obama was wrapping up, a whopping eight minutes after he’d begun. He said he told Herbert that Utah was a nice place, and that maybe sometime when he doesn’t have to work so hard, he’d like to visit some of the national parks.
Then the audience applauded, Obama shook some hands and he walked away.
Some of the local dignitaries, like Becker, hung around and talked shop, saying how important renewable energy is to Salt Lake City and Utah.
But I was interested to hear what Bishop had to say about public lands. Bishop has been spearheading something called the “Public Lands Initiative,” which aims to reach consensus at the Utah level on some of the more barbed issues surrounding public lands.
Bishop has a shock of white hair (way more hair than I have up there), and he must have just returned from a horseback ride through Utah’s booming oil and gas fields because, man oh man, Bishop has a killer tan.
As I walked up, Bishop was just starting to talk about how much energy—the dirty kind and the clean kind—is “locked up” on federal land in Utah.
“This country is already becoming a leader in energy production,” Bishop said. “We could be the dominant power in energy production, so we could be of value to our allies… if we could unlock the energy sources on our federal lands out here, renewable as well as fossil fuel. I think that’s one of the things Utah has going for it and we need to do that. We can make this country move farther, we can provide the jobs, we can even provide a better and more stable foreign policy for this country if we just were to unlock all of the potential that Utah has.”
I asked Bishop how unlocking all of this energy would jive with preservation and the state’s thriving, and growing, outdoor recreation industry. “There’s plenty of opportunity to do that,” he said. “There’s so much land that you can have conservation and you can have economic development and outdoor recreation at the same time.”
And I wondered what he had to say about all of the oil and gas wells that the BLM has approved in Utah. As Bishop noted, energy production—much of which has taken place during Obama’s tenure as president—has boomed in the United States and in Utah.
He said most of the holes drilled into Utah are housed on state and private land, not federal land, which is where the real treasures are stored. But the BLM actively leases land for oil and gas drilling all the time, a point I brought up.
“Not necessarily,” Bishop said. “There’s a difference between leasing land and leasing land that is profitable. Leasing land that a company can use and benefit from [and] leasing land that will be subject to lawsuits. There’s always a difference with that. The agencies need to be doing a better job with that.”
Many of Utah’s state leaders, as well as its national representatives, have a hard time hiding their disdain for the federal government, and Obama. Few measuring sticks are more effective at gauging this distaste than in health care. Even Gov. Herbert, a devout Republican, has urged the Legislature to extend health care to needy Utahns. And if it did, Utah could bring back to the state hundreds of millions of dollars in its own tax money that, which minus health care expansion, is being swallowed up by someone else.
But so far, the Legislature has declined to take this money, citing, among other things, the faults of “Obamacare.”
But a rarely tested anti-Obama measuring stick was used yesterday when a reporter asked Bishop if it was good for Utah to “be on this level, to be seen in this way,” meaning a visit from Obama.
“I don’t know,” Bishop said. “Good question, I don’t know.”
By the time I got back to Salt Lake, the buses and dump trucks surrounding the Sheraton were gone. The spectacle of a presidential visit was making its way across the sky, back to Washington D.C.
I didn’t get to ask Obama any questions, or tell him about anything. But if I could have, I’d have told him that I put on my cowboy boots and a sport coat just for him.