A reporter's perspective on the president's address to U-M grads
I’m not going to lie. When I first heard that President Obama was going to be at U of M, I could hardly contain my excitement. The night the announcement was made, I immediately e-mailed my boss to ask for permission to apply for press credentials.
True I had covered Sen. Obama when he was making a campaign stop in Detroit in 2008, but this was different. Now he was the leader of the free world and he was taking time out of his hectic schedule to talk directly to people my age.
Political affiliations aside, how neat will it be to one day tell my future children and grandchildren that I got to see the president of the United States in person?
The week before the commencement, my excitement got the best of me. I had dreams of interviewing the president and scooping the story from our large daily newspaper competitors. Often I would wake up in the middle of the night unable to fall back asleep. Most of my college friends thought I was being ridiculous –– even when I wrote a letter to the White House requesting an interview with the president while he was in Michigan –– but I didn’t care.
Up until the day of the event, I came home from work every evening half expecting a response to my letter, but it never came.
The experience at Michigan Stadium more than made up for it though.
Arriving at Michigan Stadium was an adventure in itself. Being an alumnus from the University of Texas, I had never been to “The Big House.” Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about parking because my coworker who was also attending the event lived within less than a mile of the stadium and graciously offered to let me park in her apartment complex.
All media were expected to check in for their press credentials between 5 and 8 a.m. I arrived promptly at 6 a.m. to find the line already snaking halfway down the street. Ten minutes into my arrival, the skies opened up on a bunch of angry, tired, hungry journalists, who were told we wouldn’t be allowed inside the stadium until lightening stopped. It’s a good thing I listened to my girlfriend the night before and sprung for a poncho, because umbrellas were not allowed either. I hate ponchos; they make whoever is wearing them look like they were too lazy to dress themselves so they just punched a hole through the tablecloth.
I passed the time –– about 45 minutes –– cursing at my Blackberry, which had the visible signs of rain damage. Two nights prior I had labored an hour or so at midnight trying to figure out how to sync the phone with our company’s online blog to bring periodic updates to our readers. The journalist behind me in line seemed quite amused by my predicament. He spent his time unsuccessfully trying to flirt with a high school journalist while cracking jokes about the soon-to-be caliber of graduates running in the rain with their caps and gowns on, “sans-poncho.”
Finally the gates opened and the media were ushered to a security checkpoint run by Secret Service. When I finally got to the metal detector, one of the agents quickly pointed out that I didn’t have a press pass.
“Yes I do,” I argued holding up my Heritage Newspapers badge. Apparently I missed the memo. Every single reporter before and after me produced a red University of Michigan official press lanyard. The agent pointed me outside the stadium gate and to a blue trailer marked “PRESS.” I had been waiting in the wrong line.
I dashed out the gates, pushing past several reporters, ran across the street nearly missing the front end of a state police car, and up the hill to the press trailer. Inside, out of breath and dripping wet from the rain, I had finally registered.
Back inside the stadium, crowds of people began filling in. The rain had slowed to light drops and I had managed to find my coworker, who was taking pictures for the paper.
It was amusing to see U of M students walking around looking for family and loved ones in the stands while texting or calling others on their cell phones. Everyone was excited to be there. Students kept blowing past one particular Secret Service agent who had a stare that could melt ice. The man didn’t move, smile or say a word to anyone who got near him. He was quickly deemed “Mr. All Business” by some students. Maybe that’s a pre-requisite for being a spook.
At one point, several students started parading around the stadium with monstrous paper mache characters singing along to bands performing “Sign Sealed Delivered” on stage to pass the time.
It was a party in Michigan Stadium. I almost forgot why we were there in the first place, and I half-expected Lynyrd Skynyrd to come out on stage performing “Free Bird” while students tossed about plastic beach balls.
Then, as if someone had hit fast-forward on their VCR, the 11 o’clock hour hit and cheers erupted as a U.S. Army helicopter flew overhead. The president had arrived.
Once the university band switched from “Pomp and Circumstance” to “Hail to the Chief” and President Obama walked on stage, my eyes were glued. Like the other 82,000 people in attendance, I don’t even think I remember what the other speakers said before the president took to the podium.
I do remember listening to the president directing all of us to become better people in order to foster democracy. The president challenged all of us to look beyond the name calling and bickering in Washington and work toward helping each other in our respective communities.
His speech was poignant, yet funny and easy to connect with. It was interesting to hear the president speak about democracy and how no one ever said it is guaranteed for future generations. It is something we have to work hard for, and he clearly outlined that it is up to the younger generations to remain active participants in the process.
The most moving part of the ceremony, however, was watching the president swear in the U of M ROTC graduates. I remember the jumbo television screen showing several graduates with tears streaming down their faces. Being in the same room with the president and being a part of the energy at Michigan Stadium is a feeling I will never forget.
After the president left and the ceremony ended, one student remarked, “That was pretty cool.”
It was cool, but it was so much more than that. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to come together united with thousands of other Americans to ignite the flames of passion for our next generation of doctors, teachers, military personnel and politicians who will take up the torch and lead our country to greatness.