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A presidential visit


Obama's whirlwind visit to Ottawa has me reminiscing about another presidential visit and my tiny but rather memorable role in it.

It was March, 1981 and I was in the one-year journalism program at Carleton University. Ronald Reagan was coming to town. ABC News contacted the school asking for three reliable students to assist them as gophers over the visit. I was dispatched with two classmates to the Sheraton Hotel early on the first day.

The ABC News team had taken over an entire floor of the hotel with a crew of at least 40 people - camerman, editors, reporters, graphic artists, administrators. Cables were running from room to room. One room had been converted into a mock news room studio with a mahogany desk, fake backdrop and a bank of cameras; other rooms were dressing rooms for White House Chief Correspondent Sam Donaldson and the glamorous Lesley Stahl. I was awestruck by these oversize personalities - their dominating physical stature, their symmetry, their confident demeanor. I was an insignificant shrimp beside them. And I dare say they didn't even notice me. I remember tobacco smoke permeating the entire floor as editors and reporters  puffed on ever-present cigarettes.

Others rooms were for the two or three other national correspondents who were covering different angles of the visit. One room was the breakroom, filled with a huge assortment of refreshments, iced pop, always fresh coffee and buffet. At least two rooms were editing suites. One room, where I and the other two Carleton students spent most of our time, was the logging bay.

We sat in chairs two at a time, the third on relief, watching video monitors, logging the feed that came in. Each section had to be carefully numbered and annotated. Tape #1, 1 min 15 secs, Ron and Nancy emerge from Air Force 1, descend plane steps; 2 min, 30 secs, on tarmac, RR shakes Pierre Trudeau's hand.

We filled page after page of yellow legal pads with feed annotations. Then the editors would call us in. "We need a good shot of the US Ambassador." We would all scan through our sheets. "Go to tape 5, starts at 3 minutes and 20 seconds" one would say.

"Okay, now a good shot of Nancy Reagan in her travelling outfit."

A rustle of pages: "Tape 1, starts at 6 minutes 43 seconds until 6:54."

It was an intense but mentally numbing activity, followed by lulls when the dignitaries were in closed door meetings. We'd go to the food room and pig out on the Sheraton's impressive buffet, then be called back to the logging room for more headache-inducing staring and scribbling.

At 11:45 pm, after all the stories had been filed to the late night news, Sam and Lesley had chatted in the Ottawa "studio" to Peter Jennings in New York, we were told we were done for the day. The money man, a short and stocky fellow with horned rimmed glasses, met us at the elevator and pulled out a huge wad of American bills. He seemed to have no idea what he should pay us but just reeled off 20s  until our eyes grew so large, he knew it was time to stop. He said "Thanks. Be back at 8 am."

I had something like $200 in my pocket. We laughed and squealed in the elevator. We just thought we'd get a good recommendation for our resume. It was really big money to us back then, and made the monotony of the logging more than worth it.

The next day began much the same, except that overnight the news had broken that the visit corresponded with a few days earlier Reagan's sudden scuttling of a Grand Banks bilateral fishing treaty. Canadian dignitaries and particularly Atlantic Canada officials were extremely pissed off and it had come up in the talks. A reporter and cameraman had been quickly dispatched to Lunenburg while others on the floor were piecing together just where the hell the Grand Banks were and what this arcane treaty was all about.

In one of those rare synchronicities, I just happened to know. The year earlier I had graduated from the University of Guelph with a Bachelor of Science -- I was the only student in the journalism program with a science degree. One of my fourth-year courses was Fish and Wildlife Management, with a section of the curriculum on international fishing treaties, particularly the one covering the valuable but fragile resource of the Grand Banks.

The crew seemed astounded that the j-school kid in the logging room knew details about a fish treaty.  Soon I was elevated from mere logger to research assistant on the piece. In the days before the internet, there was no way to quickly get facts and maps. I sat with a graphic artist as we sketched out a map of the maritime coast, shading in approximate locations of the Grand Banks. I dictated out key points of the deal.

By 8 pm, the correspondent and cameraman had returned from Lunenburg. Alas, I can't remember his name but I will never forget his face, a handsome All American golden boy in his 30s. Nor will I forget that he was the father of two young kids he wished he could see more of but the job was so demanding he kept late hours and they were asleep often by the time he got home. He and the cameraman had had a hellish 12 hours of renting airplanes and cars, dealing with soggy maritime weather and a fever pitch of reporting. But they got the scenic shots of the Atlantic coastline with fishing boats, quaint Lunenburg clapboard houses and of course the archetypal fishermen in the heavy wool sweaters bemoaning the treaty's loss.

The images were perfect but the audio was distorted. Somehow -- they couldn't figure out how or why -- the camera's mike malfunctioned and the result was a scratchy, staticky mess of unusable sound. The correspondent was cursing and tearing out his hair. The day was a loss! Then he realized he had used his tiny tape recorder as back up on all the interviews. Momentary celebration. But it soon became clear it recorded at a different speed than the video. While the editors painstakingly tried to sync and dub his sound over the video images, he and I worked on the voice-over script. New York kept calling - -" is the Treaty piece in or out?" As the clock ticked down to 11 pm, and sweat dripped from us, we cobbled together a  minute and a half package, bringing in the graphics, maps, a fishery official, the odd-sounding fishermen who no one knew sounded odd because his audio was slightly out of sync. At 10:59 pm we were still putting finishing touches. New York was yelling down the line, " Where is the f**ing piece?"

Like something out of Broadcast News -- including a hair-raising sprint down the hotel hallway with the videotape edit -- we finally fed the finished package mere seconds before it was to air. We collapsed in adrenalin fueled-exhaustion, our shirts literally drenched in sweat, as we watched it playout as if nothing unusual had occurred. The room applauded.

But when the moment of exhileration passed, the correspondent began to vent, a dam-burst of pent up frustration. His outburst almost seemed to me to be the male equivalent of tears. And he pulled me aside.

"I have been doing this job for 15 years, working my way up first in newspapers, then tiny  regional
TV stations just to finally get to the big network but it never fucking changes. No matter how good you get, how high you get, you have shit like this --your audio crapping out, tapes breaking, something fucking up -- and you bust your ass, have a heart attack, for a mere 90 seconds. I can't take it anymore. I am never home. I am a stressed-out wreck. I have made it to the top and it is still always like this! Listen to me, don't ever go into television. You seem like a smart kid - -look at me. This is what the life is like. Don't do it. It never gets any better than this!"

I remember feeling dumbstruck; not knowing what to say to a grown man who seemed on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The other class mates had been sent home early when all the tape logging and editing had been done. It was midnight when I left. But that night when the money man met me at the elevator and counted out the bills I didn't have the same feeling of elation. It was the first time in my life I realized that money could not always compensate for the hell a job can put you through.

Over the next few months I watched ABC news for the correspondent. I never saw him again. I wonder to this day if he quit that night or shortly after.





Posted on Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 12:24PM by Registered CommenterAnne | CommentsPost a Comment

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