A ground-floor view of Obama’s valley visit
It’s an uncharacteristic 70 degrees when Air Force One, the massive militarized Boeing 747 carrying President Barack Obama, touches down at Fresno Yosemite International airport this Valentine’s Day.
For hours, myself and some 100 journalists — from newspaper to television and spanning several states — have stood herded in a metal pen, our media circus feeling more like an actual circus.
Insanely-expensive cameras and finely-tuned outfits are commonplace as we walk amongst each other, trading stories and, more often, joke about Obama’s first-time trip to our unassuming Valley.
“There’s the dog,” a reporter from another local newspaper tells me, pointing at the Marine One helicopter which would later take Obama from the airport to farms in Firebaugh and Los Banos to see the effects of California’s devastating drought first hand.
“There’s the pony,” he said, pointing at Air Force One as it descended from a thick sheet of haze and finally landed on the runway. “Let’s have us a show!”
It will be quite the show, indeed. Even if the public wasn’t invited.
A local radio broadcaster and I share a laugh as Air Force One taxis along the runway, noting how Obama’s “visit to Fresno,” as we all took to calling it, actually doesn’t have anything to do with Fresno.
Sure, a select few in the media — not those of us behind the barrier Friday — will tag along during his farm tours and hear a speech to discuss his drought-relief spending package.
But after that it’s off to a diplomatic visit with King Abdulla II in Rancho Mirage and a few rounds of golf over the weekend.
Where does Fresno fit in?
“I guess it’s the only place they could land the plane,” my radio colleague remarks. Guess every visit can’t be a hole-in-one, I reply.
It’s hard to be critical, however, once Air Force One pulls in close to all of us, even if we are about a football field away.
The roaring of the plane’s enormous engines drown out even the most cheeky of quips; the president, or “The Eagle” as I described him from then on, has landed.
The Eagle steps off the plane with an entourage of Democrats — Calif. Sens. Barbara Boxer, Diane Feinstein, and Congressman Jim Costa — as well as national press carefully in tow, while all of us hungry for quotes suppress our collective urge to hurdle over the metal barricade at the chance for exclusive content.
Oops, take your hand off the railing... law-enforcement marksmen with high-caliber sniper rifles are visible on that roof across the way.
I can’t help the sense of giddiness that hits me as The Eagle strides down the presidential steps — when you’re president, everything seems presidential — then looks over and waves at us with a smile. A cliché move, but appreciated all the same.
He has a brief chat with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, where she tells him about Valley problems that run much deeper than water.
“We have chronic, long-term challenges in Fresno and the Valley,” Swearengin says with Air Force One droning on in the background. “And even in years of full-water allocation ... we have among the highest concentration of poverty, some of the lowest educational attainment, and the highest levels of unemployment. These are chronic issues that have to be addressed along with the drought issues.”
One problem at a time, please.
As quick as The Eagle came, he’s on Marine One and gone, floating back into the hazy sea of clouds on his way to Firebaugh. For some reason, I feel like waving. Don’t forget to write, Mr. President.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a well-known television broadcaster has just finished asking Swearengin about her presidential parley, and I take the chance to ask him about his experience with these types of events.
“Man, that was quick,” he says. “Really quick. I mean he was barely even here.”
This reporter was there when Bill Clinton visited in 1995 and 1996, you see, and also when the latter George Bush came in 2003.
He remembers during those visits — the second Clinton trip in particular — how thousands of the public were in attendance and how monumental it all felt.
“It’s almost like it didn’t happen,” he says. “But it’s good to know that he’s finally come here, and hopefully he’ll see how horrible this drought really is.”
Hopefully so, I agree before we part ways.
Obama’s spending package — some $183 million to livestock assistance, water conservation, food bank allotments, and other projects — is certainly not a small gesture.
Even then, more will likely be needed as hundreds of thousands of acres have been fallowed across the Valley, which supplies about half of the entire country’s food supply. When Obama is playing at the politician-heavy Sunnylands golf course this weekend, he’ll probably look back at his first visit and consider it a hole-in-one.
The Tea Party and Peace Fresno members that protested his visit at various locations around the airport would probably call it a bogey.
If you ask the press, maybe they’d tell you it was an eagle, if not par for the presidential course.