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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hard to Reach Summit On an Empty Stomach

My first brush with the White House press corps was last year when U.S. President Bill Clinton made a 24-hour pit stop in St. Petersburg on his way to the Moscow G-7 summit.


The 3000 reporters covering the overnight, multimillion-dollar visit were holed up in the Nevsky Palace hotel, filing their stories from an improvised newsroom set up in the restaurant. Off to the side, however -- with its own buffet -- was the White House press room, the big leagues. I went in to check it out.


I was stopped by an official with the United States Information Service, or USIS.


"You don't have a White House pass," she told me. "You are not allowed to eat here -- please go back to your side of the room," she said, ejecting me before I could see the magic.


The routine was much the same at the Helsinki summit. The White House had its own gig and the rabble was confined -- blocks away -- to the Finnish Foreign Ministry press center. While their attempt to supply access was admirable, we were still getting beat by the White House wire reporters, with their dizzying stream of scoops attributed to "senior White House officials." They could do their homework, it seemed, and were smoking everyone's butts.


On day two of the summit, I finagled a White House press pass of my own, and went back in for another look.


What I found was an awesome buffet similar to last year's Nevsky Palace spread and Madeleine Albright lecturing a crowd of masticating reporters. No one seemed to notice her at all. Listening would have been a waste of time -- within minutes her speech was typed, passed out to reporters and filed worldwide more or less verbatim.


After Albright, Robert Bell, director of the U.S. National Security Council for Defense Policy, delivered a "background briefing" on the presidents' dinner conversation following the summit.


"This is without attribution, right?" Bell began.


"[The dinner] was chicken liver ... " Silence fell across the hall. He finally had everyone's attention on a topic of undisputed interest.


"Was that good?" asked The Washington Post, with its mouth full.


"I didn't have any," responded Bell, to moans of disbelief.


These remarks, like Albright's, were photocopied and handed out. The story, attributed to "a senior White House official" was on the wires within ten minutes.


Before leaving, I was pulled over by the same USIS official who had run me off last year. She demanded my credentials. They were real alright, so she tried a different tack.


"You have paid the bill, haven't you?" she said, indicating the buffet.


I hadn't, but presume the White House will spot me for this round.