Watch on the Wye Diary: It's a cold, lonely, boring job. But somebody's got to do it. As the latest Middle East peace accord is hammered out, a few newsfolks keep vigil.

October 28, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

QUEENSTOWN -- We drank coffee strong as battery acid and thick as mud. We munched on stale cheese pizza. A new blueprint for peace in the Middle East was being drafted and we had to stay awake to watch.

Tucked away in a nondescript room at the Wye Plantation conference center here last week, a dozen weary reporters and photographers spent 28 hours waiting for a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. As negotiations ground on through the night, other journalists, who were farther from the action at a press center 2 miles away, retreated to their Eastern Shore motor lodges for some rest. We had no choice but to stay.

The dozen of us were taking our turn at a peculiar form of duty little known outside the world of Washington journalism: service on the White House press pool. This group follows the president everywhere outside the White House and reports on his every move -- mostly to the rest of the press who can't all go along. Pools regularly careen between glamour and tedium. But even the seasoned soldiers who spent last Thursday morning (and Thursday night and Friday morning) with the president at Wye say that was an assignment to remember.

Pools typically include one representative each for newspapers, news magazines, TV networks, radio outlets and wire services as well as sound and film technicians and still photographers. Individual members usually rotate on a daily basis.

When the president plays golf, the pool waits for him in the clubhouse. When he dines at a swanky bistro in Northwest Washington, the pool camps out at a restaurant nearby. If he attends a Washington Capitals hockey game, the pool is in the stands. Pool members often get glimpses into history, but they are also hostages to the president's schedule -- free to leave only when the White House says Clinton's day is done and puts a "lid" on news.

First-time poolers tend to be awestruck by the majestic aura surrounding the White House. Veterans quickly get over it and describe the job as a "body-watch" -- simply an assurance that witnesses will be on hand to capture the moment if disaster strikes the chief executive.

Those of us on duty at the end of the Wye negotiations had a combination experience: the surrealism of staying awake for so long and the bizarre feeling of being trapped on a secluded compound in these bucolic farmlands.

We were summoned to duty at sunrise last Thursday when a message came from the president's staff via beeper: Clinton was going back to Wye after a day away. Meet at the White House in a half hour. No matter if you're dribbling water onto the floor from a shower. No matter that, in your haste, you forget money and a toothbrush (by Friday afternoon, you'd pay for this). No matter. On this day, you belong to them.

The pool members were loaded like cattle into a Marine helicopter and sent soaring high above the Washington skyline. Must have been a pretty view -- for the pilots, who had windows -- we did not.

Also missing were those helpful instructions about how to use a cushion as a flotation device and how to buckle the seat-belts. Two Marines just handed out earplugs and sat us down on long, hard benches. (My chief concern was whether we'd be dropped over Wye in parachutes.)

We set up shop in the pool "hold" room. Blandly decorated and underheated, this meeting hall did have a score of telephones, a spacious table, a computer with lots of games and a kitchen with a coffeemaker and microwave.

There was also a splendid view of all Wye had to offer -- pristine lakes, deer trotting across fields and colorful foliage. But a Secret Service agent assigned to the group made sure we didn't stray too far. We had passed through security at the White House. If we took a stroll by the lake, there was no telling what we might bring back in our pockets.

The day was busy. White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart dropped by or called periodically with reports on the status of the negotiations. His reports all sounded pretty much alike: The talks are intense. President Clinton had an intense discussion with Benjamin Netanyahu. Negotiators ate a scrumptious buffet of fish and veal, but quickly returned to speaking intensely.

Even so, as the lone newspaper reporter, I had to send reports to the rest of the press corps about everything Lockhart said. Wire reporters had to file stories. The radio reporters had to record spots by phone. But it was a bad day for the photographers. The holding room offered no view of Clinton, Netanyahu, Yasser Arafat, or anyone actually involved in the talks. In 28 hours, they took one picture: Clinton getting off a helicopter with the First Dog, Buddy. It's a shot they've had before.

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