On Air Force One, there is an unspoken rule that, from your assigned seat, you can go back but you can’t go forward. My seat is in the staff cabin, just north of center. From here, I can go to the guest cabin, the Secret Service cabin, the Air Force Raven cabin, and the press cabin, but I can’t go up to the front of the plane. The conference room, the senior staff cabin, the main kitchen, the President’s office, the medical-unit cabin, and the President’s personal quarters, complete with a bed, a shower, and a dusty PlayStation for Sasha and Malia, are off limits to me. There is, however, a loophole to this unspoken rule. As the stenographer responsible for recording and transcribing the President’s words, I get to go forward to cover interviews in the President’s office.
On the sixth day of an international swing through Southeast Asia, Jeff Goldberg of The Atlantic is interviewing President Obama as we fly from the Philippines to Malaysia. And so when I see the press secretary, Josh Earnest, walk through the staff cabin, followed by the deputy national-security spokesman, Ben Rhodes, followed by Jeff Goldberg, I follow them.
“Come on in, guys,” President Obama says, ushering us into his office — to the left of the room is his desk with a bucket seat on either side, to the right is a long cushioned bench. I wait for POTUS to show Jeff to his spot on the far end of the bench. I’ll sit next to Jeff, who will sit across from the President, in the bucket seat on this side of his desk, so I can hold my microphone between them. Rhodes will sit next to me, and Josh next to him, and they will lean in and tense their ear muscles like cats to try to hear Jeff’s questions and the President’s responses over the plane’s roaring engine.
But this is not what happens.
I watch, horror-stricken, as the President does not take his normal place in the bucket seat across from the bench but instead walks behind his desk and gestures to Jeff to take the bucket seat across from him. Jeff places his recorder on the President’s desk because he doesn’t know what I know — that the plane is so loud that the audio from his interview will sound like a twenty-minute pocket dial. Sweat rolls down the front of my blouse as I fight to think over the engine: I need to do something, or I’m totally screwed.
“Where do you want to sit?” Rhodes whispers to me, aware of my plight. If I don’t speak up, the interview might be lost forever, but if I do interrupt, well, then, I’m interrupting. Even Pete Souza glances over his camera lens at me in what could be construed as mild concern.
And then, of all people, POTUS asks, “Is this going to pick up the sound?” He looks at me, and so does everyone else. Even though POTUS is exhausted, and even though audio is not his problem, he’s just realized that he chose a different seat. Every move the President makes has consequences, even if it’s just three feet to the left.
With all eyes on me, I say, “Um, well, actually, do you mind if I just —” And with that, I kneel on the ground next to the President’s desk and hold up my microphone. I could have asked the President to move to his usual seat, but I don’t think of it, because my job is to be invisible, and suddenly I am very visible, and even a little vocal, and I can’t go back because I’m wasting time that isn’t mine to waste. As I kneel in my skirt, I realize today would have been a great day for pants.