The presidential motorcade adventure

David Skolnick

Covering national political figures — including presidents and presidential candidates — when they’re in the Mahoning Valley is not one of the more pleasant parts of my job.

That’s because what shouldn’t be a terribly complicated event often becomes incredibly time consuming and challenging because of reasons I still don’t understand nearly 25 years after covering my first presidential visit.

The reason I don’t understand is simple: there is no logical explanation.

When President Joe Biden visited East Palestine last week, I had to first drive to Pittsburgh — and right past East Palestine — rather than the location where he made his stops and speech, which lasted just a few minutes.

The White House informed me the day before that I and photographer R. Michael Semple had to be at an Air Force base in Pittsburgh to be in the motorcade despite repeated requests to just meet Biden in East Palestine. I tried logic and, while I was met with sympathy, the answer was still drive the extra distance to Pittsburgh to join the motorcade.

I found out later that the local television stations didn’t have to go to Pittsburgh and were told where and when to be for Biden’s East Palestine arrival.

One saving grace of that drive was we had to be at the Pittsburgh air base only about an hour before Air Force One arrived. I’ve covered plenty of Air Force One landings in which I had to be on the tarmac three hours before the plane landed and at the airport five or six hours early.

Our motorcade van’s two drivers were very pleasant although when we got in they had just taken COVID-19 tests as required by the White House. What would have happened had they tested positive was never explained to anyone.

I also learned that there was a nail in one of the van’s tires and the two had just put about 32 pounds of air in it before we got in the vehicle. The thought of driving 75 mph on that tire was often on my mind.

The White House gave the media a vague itinerary of where we would be. By vague, I mean Biden stops at some unspecified place in East Palestine at 4:25 p.m. and then another place at 4:45 p.m. It turned out the 4:45 p.m. stop was indoors a few feet from the stop 20 minutes prior.

When you’re on these trips, there’s often what are called “unscheduled stops,” which is the exact opposite of what you’d think. These are actually carefully planned and scheduled stops that the White House doesn’t bother to tell the media.

The first stop was at the volunteer fire department in Darlington, Pa., before we got to East Palestine. The final stop was an East Palestine business before heading back to Pittsburgh.

White House handlers, who are mostly half my age, enjoy their power a bit too much at times.

Most of the day was hurry up and get out of the van, stand at a location for far too long waiting for Biden to appear and then get rushed back to the van where we’d wait for about 30 minutes to go to the next location.

At the conclusion of the 4:45 p.m. stop — some time after 5 p.m. — I asked to use the restroom as it had been a long day. I was told it was too late to use it, but I persisted and actually won that little battle.

I was taken through a vacant warehouse and told to go up the stairs and the bathroom was on the other side of a door. The bathroom looked and smelled like something out of a horror movie.

After I was done, a woman traveling in my van had to use the restroom and it took a while. The look on the faces of the handlers was priceless as you would have thought we were delaying the entire motorcade.

When we got back to our van, the drivers weren’t even there and the motorcade didn’t leave for another 20 minutes.

We arrived around 7 p.m. in Pittsburgh and were quickly escorted out of the motorcade only to be forced back less than a minute later. Then, anyone connected to the White House abandoned us.

The van’s drivers let us off near my parked car.

Thankfully these are infrequent visits.

I’ll spare you the details of the lengthy drive home from Pittsburgh.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.85/week.

Subscribe Today