Had I received the media advisory when everyone else did, I might be inside the Englewood Neighborhood Center, instead of on the sidewalk across the street. Let me explain: Today, Nov. 13, is the occasion of President George W. Bush's four-hour stopover in The City Beautiful, during which time he will attend a $2,000-per-plate fund-raiser -- which will net in the ballpark of $860,000 -- and give a 30-minute speech on Medicare.
It's the latter that catches my attention, not because Medicare is so damn fascinating, but because the Englewood Neighborhood Center, where Bush is delivering the speech, is exactly 2.7 miles from my home, in the middle of a very middle-class, heavily Hispanic subdivision north of Curry Ford Road.
Bush is speaking here because the center is 10 minutes from the airport, meaning he can fly in, raise some money, make a policy speech and fly out to the next fund-raiser (later in the afternoon, in Fort Myers, where he expects to rake in $1.7 million) without a lot of hassle.
Unfortunately, I didn't realize all that until this morning, when Bush's itinerary appeared in the Orlando Sentinel. The advisory had gone out to local media two days earlier, but not to the Orlando Weekly offices. By the time I got a copy of it from the White House press office -- for fun, let's say I got it from a "senior administration official" -- the deadline for securing media credentials had expired.
Long story short, I'm stuck outside with the plebes, many of whom are on site not to cheer Bush, but to find out why the hell their quiet neighborhood was suddenly inundated with cops, television crews and suspicious-looking men in black. Bush's motorcade is mere minutes away, and one suspicious-looking man walks quickly down the sidewalk, saying, "Hi," to everyone while giving them an unnerving once-over. I'll get to know this man a bit better in a few minutes, but more on that later.
There are, at various times, between 75 and 100 people on this sidewalk, some with flags, most just curious onlookers. One man with a handlebar mustache is handing out "Relect Bush" fliers; he hands me several and instructs me to pass them out to my friends.
Sure thing, pal.
A young mother named Kelly wonders about the two tour buses parked out front. I guess that the buses probably transported the afternoon's audience of attentive seniors eager to applaud Bush's Medicare wisdom. "You mean there are seniors in the building `who are` going to listen to the president?" she asks. The suggestion that these events are made for TV escapes her. But, seeing as how I'm from a newspaper and all, she feels compelled to defend Bush's virtue. "At least the man's tryin'," Kelly says, smiling sweetly. "I haven't seen anyone else doing a better job."
A Marlboro Light-puffing man next to me chimes in that not even the city workers tapped to clean up the neighborhood center the night before knew what was going on. "They thought the mayor was coming," he says. Then, "That mayor, I don't know ... I don't like what he did firing those city employees."
Kelly is still enraptured with the idea of seeing Bush, up close and personal. "You're going to see the president, and you're not even 2 years old!" she exclaims to her son, like he cares.
Enough chitchat. The president's motorcade is winding down the road, and I head off to find a good perch. Presidents move in style: two limousines, at least 20 black vans and SUVs packed with staffers and Secret Service agents, and no fewer than 75 motorcycle cops. (It could be a killer Harley-Davidson commercial.) Not to mention the two snipers I could see on the roof and the helicopter overhead.
While these good Americans -- at least the prepared ones -- get ready to wave their flags, I wonder what would happen if, instead of waving, I shot Bush the bird. Yes, I should have done it; yes, I pussed out. Strike one. Anyway, Bush drives by, and smiles and waves at me. Well, not at me, but at the folks gathered on the sidewalk.
His limo turns into the parking lot, and he exits inside to make his speech. The entrance is now over, leaving hordes of bike cops on the street, waiting for Bush to leave. Apparently, they're not entirely thrilled to be there. A man asks an Orlando cop how long it will be until the neighborhood returns to some semblance of sanity; he's heard that it'll be about quarter to three and it's just after two o'clock now.
"God, I hope not," the cop responds. It's hot under the Kevlar. "They're shooting for 2:30. He's usually pretty prompt, compared to some other presidents we've had." This copper looks young, so I'm guessing that's a dig at Clinton. The cop then volunteers that those tour buses serve a grander purpose than I thought -- they are protection, "mobile barricades," for the president. They're parked in front of wherever the prez exits his car to prevent snipers from getting a clear shot, I suppose. The cop didn't elaborate.
Two men walk by, and one notices my notepad. "You got petitions, man?" he asks.
"I'm a professional petition signer," he says.
Strike two. I should have told him it's a petition to recall Shrub, just to see his face. But again, I pussed out.
This being politically indifferent Orlando and all, I didn't expect to see scores of protesters. There are, to my count, five: two with Howard Dean shirts on; three from the liberal activist group ACORN. They are countered by two old women holding up "God Bless America ... Re-elect George W. Bush" signs that were made on the back of "For Rent" placards. The Deanies chalk up some cool points for their homemade banner, which reads: "Who Would Jesus Bomb?"
The ACORN folks stop by to chat. They were hoping to meet up with the Service Employees International Union reps for some sort of protest, but the SEIU people didn't bother to show, so the ACORN people aren't real sure what to do. "Well, that's Florida," one says. They walk away.
I turn around to find more passersby to talk up and meet the cold stare of a 30-something woman sharply dressed in a black business suit. "Whatcha writin' there?" she asks. It's more than just passing interest. Apparently, I've offended the Secret Service. Terrific.
Behind her, I notice the same guy, a federal agent, who had paced the sidewalk ahead of Bush's arrival. He demands to see my press credentials; she demands to see my notepad. She scours through my chicken-scratch and makes out one entry, in which I wonder how many man-hours OPD was wasting on Shrub's fund-raising with the written comment, "What a fucking waste."
"What does that say?" she double-checks, pointing at my obvious profanity. I laugh (a bit nervously).
I want to tell her that it's my goddamn notebook and I'm on a goddamn public sidewalk, so neither she nor her goddamn jackbooted goon squad could peek at my private notes. But the words "detention" and "interrogation" weigh heavily in my decision for restraint. As previously mentioned, I'm a puss. I cave. Strike three.
A more pressing problem appears to be my lack of press credentials. When I proffer my driver's license, the male agent grabs it and looks at it cockeyed. "How long ago was this taken?" he asks.
"About six years," I reply. He isn't convinced that the 18-year-old surfer boy in the picture is the same guy as the slightly heavier, clearly annoyed reporter in front of him. He isn't happy I don't have another photo I.D. or a business card and takes a few steps out of earshot and talks with someone on his cell phone. The female agent, meanwhile, probes me for proof that I am really with the media.
The best I can do is share a copy of the letter I faxed to the White House's press office (unsuccessfully) seeking credentials. Per the office's requirements, it has my name, position, date of birth and social security number. She looks at the phone number on the letterhead and asks if she calls it, will the company know who I am.
She whips out her cell and calls, identifying herself as a Secret Service agent. (At most places of employment, this might cause some measure of embarrassment, but my boss hopes my ass lands in jail. That would make for a good story.) My identity is validated, my wallet returned. The woman says, "We can get a little nervous when people are writing things down."
The excitement helps pass the time until Bush leaves for the airport. I pretty much keep to myself. Afterward, though, I do nearly bump into a quickly departing Katherine Harris.
As Bush drives away, he looks out his limo window, waves and smiles with amusement. This time, it was at me. I swear. I deserved it.