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Shouting over French horns and questioning flowers

In a parable of White House 'pool' duty, our reporter stays up until 1a.m. for a three-minute van ride and flies to Guam in hopes of getting inone question.

As a White House reporter, I'm often asked what's really going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - as if I were somehow holding the important stuff back. What does the president really think about CIA shenanigans in Iraq, or, for that matter, Chelsea on the cover of People magazine?

Actually, there aren't many opportunities to directly ask the president any question. He hasn't held a solo press conference with White House correspondents in 11 months. In his first year, he held 18 East Room sessions. We've had a few chances at joint press conferences with foreign leaders, but there haven't been many of those, either.

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Then there's the Rose Garden and Mr. Clinton's shoe pivot. If he finishes his remarks and turns slowly from the podium to walk back to the Oval Office, you know he's willing to take a question. If he turns quickly on his heel, reporters are left shouting at the magnolias. In the year of Lewinsky, he did a lot of quick turns.

And, last summer, he was in Mozart-like sync with the White House band. He'd finish his last word; they'd strike up the French horns. Question? Did someone ask a question?

Aside from an arranged interview, though, there is one other way to ask the president something. It's called the in-town travel pool, an intimate group of reporters there to record an event for the rest of the media who can't fit into the Oval Office or presidential motorcade.

Pool duty is assigned alphabetically, by name of news organization, and amounts to a tour of about once a month. It's a hit or miss assignment, and can turn into a lot of waiting. It usually starts at 7:30 in the morning, and can last into the Conan O'Brien hours, depending on what events the president has scheduled.

Take the Monitor's February duty, for instance. On that day, the president spent the evening in Atlanta. The trip was covered by a separate pool traveling with Clinton.

The in-town pool assignment was to show up at the White House at 1 a.m., and then leave in a van for the reflecting pool, where the president would arrive via Marine One. All this, just to follow the president in his motorcade for the three-minute drive home.

POOL duty in January harbored more potential, because it fell on a Sunday, which meant possibly going to church with the president. But hours were spent waiting in the White House basement, watching the Sunday talk shows, until the all clear was given over the broadcast system.

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The president skipped church that day, and with no other events planned, we could all go home. The camera crews upstairs let out a Bronx cheer.

Let's see. In December, the president was on the road in Israel the day we were summoned, so nothing there. But in November, when the Monitor was traveling with the president in Asia, we got an assignment with more possibility for a close encounter: Air Force One, from Guam back to Andrews Air Force Base.

The president had just received a rock-star-like reception at an outdoor speech in Guam - better than the pope, one local reporter commented. Clinton had clearly enjoyed himself, working the rope line not once, but twice.

He stooped down for Kodak moments with children, and encouraged people at the back of the crowd to come forward so he could shake as many hands as possible.

The word was that after an event like this, he was feeling good enough that he would probably visit the media at the back of Air Force One (reporters are not allowed to get up and freely roam the presidential plane).

But as Guam drifted further and further behind, the president did not come back. Not even his press secretary made an appearance.

So, what could have been a news opportunity turned into any standard overseas flight, with one caloric exception: the Clinton M&Ms, available from the steward, and the blankets bearing the presidential seal.

Press secretary Joe Lockhart promises the president will go mano-a-mano with the media in March. I'll be on vacation the first two weeks of the month. It may be another year before I get that question in.

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