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Sun, stampedes and the Secret Service: What happens when a president visits California

President Jimmy Carter visited Fresno to talk about the drought on a day trip to California.
President Jimmy Carter visited Fresno to talk about the drought on a day trip to California. Telegram-Tribune

I’m not a fan of the phrase, or practice, of the photo op.

Shorthand for “photo opportunity,” the photo op is a largely stage-managed event intended to provide a picture or video clip to illustrate the talking point of the day. Usually, the events are crafted to prevent anything interesting or revelatory from happening.

Sometimes a stage-managed moment goes horribly awry — like the time Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis rode around in a tank, wearing a helmet that make him look goofy.

The attempt to show the candidate as a strong potential commander-in-chief boomeranged on the campaign.

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The press wait for President Jimmy Carter to arrive in Fresno to talk about the drought on a day trip to California. Thom Halls Telegram-Tribune

No one remembers Dukakis’ intended talking point, related to military spending. They only think of the helmet, which was required when riding in a tank at high speeds.

While journalists strive to tell meaningful stories, blank pages and airtime need to be filled every day. The press conference and photo opportunity aren’t going away any time soon.

President Jimmy Carter took a day trip to California on May 17, 1977, as documented in five pages of the White House Daily Diary.

The 15-hour-day included stops in Los Angeles and Fresno, two question-and-answer sessions with the press, a speech to the United Auto Workers, questions from a live television audience and a meeting with a farmer in Reedley about the effects of drought.

A few days after the visit, photographer Thom Halls wrote a a peek-behind-the-curtain feature about covering a presidential stop.

The following story was published in the Telegram-Tribune on May 28, 1977.

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The press wait for President Jimmy Carter to arrive in Fresno to talk about the drought on a day trip to California. Thom Halls Telegram-Tribune

Carter and the press

A caravan of cameras and quotes

From the moment you get your press credentials, you are in a different world. A world of notebooks, film cassettes and clicking cameras. Your assignment: to cover the President of the United States in Fresno County to inspect the state drought conditions.

You and two to three hundred other newsmen are there to bring back a story.

The sun is hot, there is no shade, the Secret Service is everywhere.

You wait. Fellow journalists pat, pat, pat their notebooks on their sides. Others nervously tip their cameras with their fingers, just trying to kill time.

You wait some more.

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An army of journalists surrounds President Jimmy Carter during his visit Fresno to talk about the drought, part of a day trip to California on May 17, 1977. Thom Halls Telegram-Tribune

A plane arrives. No, not Air Force One. It’s the national press plane. The number of press people doubles and standing room is [at] a premium.

Then, the President’s plane appears on the horizon. Activity whirls through the crowd. Suddenly that man from the L.A. Times you were just talking to is 10 feet ahead scrambling for a better vantage point.

“Hey! You’re on my power cord, buddy,” shouts a cameraman.

“How many feet of film left?” screams another.

“F/11…f/11,” insists still another.

Everyone is getting ready, double and triple checking.

The plane lands. The crowd roars. And 10,000 cameras sound in one unified click.

Carter makes his way to the podium, to the tune of motor-driven cameras. During his five-minute talk, hundreds of lenses never budge from his image.

Finished with his remarks, Carter gets into his motorcade.

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President Jimmy Carter visited Fresno to talk about the drought on a day trip to California. Thom Halls Telegram-Tribune

The stampede is on. Thousand-dollar Nikons bounce around the necks of photographers as they rush to the press buses. Television camera crews run in unison to avoid breaking cords from cameras to battery packs.

The motorcade races at speeds up to 80 miles per hour through the California countryside. Its destination: a small farm near the foothills.

All intersections are blocked by the Highway Patrol. The 30-minute trip takes about one-third normal driving time.

Upon arrival, there’s another stampede for the best positions. Again you are surrounded by the Secret Service. Again you wait.

You wait for the President to finish his tour of the ranch and report what he has seen.

Newsmen gather and continue to click away thousands of feet of film as the President speaks.

As quickly as he came, the President departs. The press heads for the buses. This time, the police escort is missing and the press bus must fend for itself. The 30-minute trip takes 45.

The fanfare and crowds have vanished. Only the deserted grandstand remains. A few television news crews put the final touches on their reports.

The President’s visit is over. But somewhere — wherever the President goes next — the scene will be repeated.

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