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Hobnobbing with the president - Greg Gelpi

What did you do for your birthday?

Usually, I say something about grabbing a bite to eat with friends and just hanging out.

This year, when friends and family from back home asked what I did, I said that I was with the president.

Without fail, they asked the president of what.

Last week, I had the adventure of covering President Bush's visit to Atlanta.

Love him or hate him, the experience was one that I'm sure I won't soon forget.

Politics has always fascinated me, and I remember interviewing my first politician as a junior in college. I interviewed Randy Ewing, the speaker of the Louisiana Senate, about TOPS, the Cajun version of HOPE, and how the state would be able to continue to fund the scholarship program. Does this sound familiar?

Covering the president was nothing like that experience, and, to be honest, I don't know what I was expecting.

I've seen Hollywood movie after Hollywood movie, and to my surprise seeing Bush was something out of a movie. Movies tend to sensationalize and characterize.

Nondescript men in conservative dark suits with earpieces were everywhere and reminded me of Agent Smith from "The Matrix." The Secret Service agents swarmed Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Snipers were stationed on top of a hangar. Literally, hundreds of law enforcement officers, including SWAT teams, blanketed the area from the tarmac to the streets around the airport.

And then after being screened, herded on to the back of a flatbed truck and waiting for hours, Air Force One appeared as if magically. It looked no different than on TV, but seeing it up close still seemed unreal.

President Bush popped out of a door nonchalantly, waved to dignitaries and reporters as he has done countless times before.

After a brief word with those on the ground, he hopped into his presidential limo, and his motorcade was off.

The million-dollar fund-raiser I covered later that day was another story entirely.

Quickly growing accustomed to big wigs attempting to wine and dine the media in hopes of influencing coverage. The opposite was true of Bush's $2,000-a-plate fund-raiser.

The media were pinned into a narrow area and guarded by the Secret Service. With their backs to the president, three or four agents kept us confined, forbid us to speak to anyone at the function and refused to let us leave our holding area.

Call it a matter of national security, but I'd call it a matter of running interference for the money collections. Nothing can slow down the flow of money into a political campaign like a pesky reporter asking questions.

Various White House officials spoke about the media only feet from us. A top concern was making sure reporters didn't sneak out and mingle will the president's financial-backers.

The country has a free press, except when the press hinders making money.

As a political junkie, I've seen many presidential talks and appearance through the eyes of a television camera or another journalist. I've never had the opportunity to witness the president in person.

Often the sound bite makes its way into the media, but the backdrop and surroundings of the one-liner remains out of the public eye.

Greg Gelpi covers education for the News Daily. He can be reached at ggelpi@news-daily.com or (770) 478-5753 Ext. 247.