My Time With President Obama (Don’t Trip Over the Nuclear Football)

July 17, 2009 by David Bergman

I love my job. I’m fortunate that I often have access to amazing people and places. I’ve covered Olympics and Super Bowls and have done portrait sessions with famous musicians, actors, and comedians.

I have also photographed six U.S. presidents, including President Obama at the inauguration. But Tuesday night was unique because I got to spend about 90 minutes “behind the scenes” with the President at the All-Star Game in St. Louis for Sports Illustrated. He was there to throw out the ceremonial first pitch — the first sitting president to do so at an All-Star Game since Gerald Ford in 1976.

President Barack Obama at the All-Star Game

I had arranged my access directly with the White House, but still didn’t know if it was going to happen even as I boarded my flight on Monday afternoon. I was pretty excited when I connected in Atlanta and got an email saying that — after I passed a background check — I would have exclusive access with the President as he met with players in the American League clubhouse and then in a meeting with the umpires.

The first thing I had to do was decide what to wear.

On one hand, I was going to meet the President and felt that a suit would be appropriate. On the other, it’s a baseball game and I figured that President Obama would be dressed casually. I decided to go with the suit because I thought it might be important to blend in with the White House staff.

At Busch Stadium on game day, I went through the secret service’s dog-sniffing security check. Those guys could certainly teach the TSA a few things.

I was told to wait outside of the American League clubhouse at 6pm. As I stood in the hallway at 5:45, they announced that the area had to be locked down and completely cleared out because the President was on his way. A very nice but stern man wearing an ear piece said I would have to leave. I gave him the name of the White House staffer who told me to wait there and after a few calls on his radio, he said I was good to stay. International incident avoided.

When the President arrived, his personal photographer Pete Souza shook my hand and the first thing he said was, “You’re overdressed.” Ugh.

President Obama went to each locker and shook hands with every player and coach. He’s just as personable as I expected and was all smiles.

President Barack Obama at the All-Star Game

He even gave Derek Jeter a hard time about being one of the older players at the game.

President Barack Obama at the All-Star Game

It was fun to see major league players like Curtis Granderson and Nelson Cruz getting autographs and shooting cell phone pictures.

President Barack Obama at the All-Star Game

After leaving the locker room, he met the umpires…

President Barack Obama at the All-Star Game

…and signed a few baseballs.

President Barack Obama at the All-Star Game

Then the President went into a holding room while I waited outside. There were a few moments when I felt as if I was going to be kicked out at any second, but I think the fact that I was wearing a suit helped me. It looked as if I was supposed to be there. Sometimes that’s half the battle.

I then had a surreal exchange with a military officer as we waited in the hallway. I asked him about his job, and he explained that the President always has one military aide close by. I said, “So you’re in charge of security, right?” He said, “No, secret service is in charge. Unless things get really bad. Then I’m in charge.” Eek.

He then casually pointed out that the black bag sitting on the floor about two feet in front of me was “the football that you’ve heard about.” It took me a second to realize that he was referring to the nuclear football that is never too far away from the President. Ack.

I asked him why it wasn’t handcuffed to him, and he said that was only in the movies. Note to self: don’t trip over that bag.

After realizing that I was 24 inches away from the launch codes that could destroy the entire world, we went to the batting cages. I bet I’m the first person to ever write that sentence.

Unfortunately, they wanted the President’s warm-up time with Albert Pujols to be private, so I wasn’t able to photograph it.

At that point, I figured I’d better get in position to shoot the pitch. I was able to stand in the first-base photo box next to the tunnel where President Obama was going to enter the field. As he waited for them to announce his name, he took a second or two to close his eyes and collect himself.

President Barack Obama at the All-Star Game

It’s my favorite photo from the day.

As he entered the field, he stopped to shake a few hands. At one point, he seemed to reach out to me, but I was too busy taking photos and didn’t want to lower my camera. He wound up shaking the hand of the guy next to me.

President Barack Obama at the All-Star Game

My position wasn’t great for the actual pitch because the TV cameraman was in every shot.

President Barack Obama at the All-Star Game

I wasn’t too worried about it because the pitch would be well documented by the other photographers and my goal is always to get something different.

He left the field out of the same tunnel, so I was able to get another shot as he walked back towards me.

President Barack Obama at the All-Star Game

After he left, I went to the photo room to edit my photos for a web gallery at si.com.

Oh, and I also changed into a pair of jeans.

Overall, it was an incredible evening and I hope to photograph President Obama again. I owe a huge amount of thanks to Pete Souza because the shoot wouldn’t have happened without his help. I’m also grateful to Sports Illustrated picture editor Nate Gordon and director of photography Steve Fine for their support.

One funny sidenote: As I was waiting outside the batting cages, Dodgers manager Joe Torre walked by, looked at all the secret service and said, “Don’t try anything. I’ve seen 24.”

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