Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vehicle approaching the Oval Office portico (Pics: MC)
Here is an example of poetic justice. Since I was going to be at the White House yesterday to report on India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, I had told some of my friends—only as a way to mock myself—to call me on my mobile between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. as many times as they could. The sole purpose of that silly request was so that I could tell them, “I can’t talk right now. I am at the White House.” They know it means nothing. I know it means nothing and yet there is some cheap joy attached to it.
Unfortunately, I left my phone charger in New York and my phone battery ran out before anyone could call. That is the poetic justice part of the story. There are other minor sidelines to my visit. I have reported from the White House before and other than its short-lived symbolism it does not really mean anything. It is a single family home which happens to be the residence of the world’s most powerful man. I don’t know such details as to whether the house has been paid off but I am sure it is because it has been around in one form or another since 1800. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the British having set fire to it in 1814. It was rebuilt after that and has undergone several makeovers in the past decades. Foreclosure is not even a remote possibility because I doubt if the government took a loan for it. It prints its own money. Theoretically, it can print its own money and pay itself.
During my nearly two hours at the White House, I mainly waited in the stakeout area outside the Oval Office for the prime minister to arrive and then inside the unusually small James S. Brady Briefing Room. This is where White House press secretaries brief the media. Visiting journalists, who do not live in Washington, have a tradition of standing by the lectern, where the press secretary stands, and get themselves photographed. There are some who playfully pose as if they are making a powerful point. I have avoided taking pictures but this time I took a couple because for the rural Indian newspaper called Gaon Connection that I was reporting for, this was a matter of some excitement. It was for the first time that a rural Indian newspaper had been granted access. It was largely due to the cooperation of the charmingly amiable Natalie Wozniak of the National Security Council’s Press Office that I secured the day-pass. Natalie is a veteran of several administrations and knows the White House intimately. She ensured that I was there.
The ceremony to receive the prime minister was rather routine with the Marine Honor Guard lining up in a particular formation with flags on either side as his vehicle came in followed by a minibus carrying top aides. Modi was received by a protocol officer and ushered into the Oval Office where the president and his aides were waiting.
Sitting inside the briefing room one got to see many familiar faces of television reporters. Compared to the low glamor world of print journalists that I dwell in, these television reporters have a certain manner engendered by their slight celebrity and high salaries. They know they are recognized and have to do things that those who are recognized have to do—look urgently preoccupied. There is also an air of bored familiarity on their faces because they come to this building everyday. Unlike those who visit very rarely and therefore look enthusiastic, the White House correspondents look mildly amused at the visitors’ enthusiasm. Some of them look encroached upon, especially because the number of seats is limited and zealously guarded. There are about 53 seats, I think. Each of them is assigned. Friend and fellow journalist Lalit K. Jha of the Press trust of India (PTI), told me that one of the seats is shared between 14 foreign journalists who are accredited to the White House. Lalit is the only accredited Indian journalist working for an Indian media outlet.
Considering that the US president talks to the world from this room via his press secretary, it is quite a tame little space. One can see wear and tear. It is a space in need of a makeover. Given its proximity to the Oval Office, I doubt if it will ever be moved elsewhere because journalists like to be close to the power that be. It gives them a hard-on, in a manner of speaking.