BOISE — When I found out I’d be in the press pool for President Joe Biden’s visit to Boise last week, I, of course, prepared some questions for the president.
I didn’t get to ask them. But that’s not unusual; I’ve covered several presidential visits to Idaho, and members of the local press typically haven’t gotten the opportunity to question the president. I wish we would. It seems like that’s the point of including local media in the pool for presidential travel — so he gets questions from the different areas of the country, not just Washington, D.C.
I had two questions, one on the wildfire situation, which was the topic of Biden’s trip; and one on his plan for COVID-19 vaccine requirements.
On wildfires, I hoped to ask him, after a summer of unprecedented smoke inundating the Treasure Valley that started in June and never fully let up, whether this is our new normal, or whether he sees a way back to the kind of summers we’ve always treasured in this region.
Biden did address this, during the course of his discussions at the National Interagency Fire Center with state and federal officials about wildfires and climate change.
“You know, folks, you know the time of the year when the air fills with smoke and the sky turns a little orange. But that time of year, getting earlier every year,” he said. “And you know, last week the air in Boise was thick with smoke from California, from Oregon.”
He ran through the statistics of this year’s fire season, marveling that more acreage has burned out west than the entire area of the state of New Jersey. “When I say that back east … it’s just unfathomable,” he said. “They don’t fully understand how big the West is.”
Biden said the “frequency and ferocity of these fires” is unprecedented, and has been the topic of international meetings he’s participated in with leaders all around the world.
While calling for increased federal aid and assistance and committing more resources to “build back better” in areas including “wildfire preparedness, resilience and response, forest management and public water sources,” he also had a grim message: “Things aren’t going to go back to like what they were.”
With global warming, the president said in Boise, “It’s not going to get any better than it is today — it can only get worse.”
My other question came because Biden had just announced plans for sweeping new vaccine requirements that will affect as many as 100 million Americans, including plans for employers of 100 or more workers to either require COVID-19 vaccines or weekly testing as a condition of continued employment. The announcement sent Idaho GOP leaders and activists into a tizzy, bordering on open revolt; thousands of angry demonstrators outside the NIFC gates waved profanity-laced signs as they protested Biden’s visit, and top Idaho officials are threatening a lawsuit.
My question was this: How can you make this plan work in a fervently red state like Idaho, as a way to control the COVID-19 pandemic?
There were no comments from the president about this during his visit, at least not in my hearing. And it should be noted that those of us in the press pool, who included four local reporters and about a dozen members of the national press who were traveling with the president, didn’t get to observe his entire visit, though we got to see and hear key parts.
That included the first 30 minutes of his briefing on wildfires with state and federal officials, after which the press pool was directed to leave and go back to a holding area, and then brought back about 20 minutes later for Biden’s tour of NIFC, including his meeting with and shaking hands of firefighters, and his close-up look at their tools of the trade, including hefting a Pulaski, the firefighting hand tool that combines an ax and an adze.
When we were observing the briefing, which seemed to me the heart of Biden’s visit, I wasn’t aware that as part of the press pool arrangement, what we saw was being live-streamed online. It had been scheduled as a “pool spray,” press-management jargon for a chance to get some video at the start of an event, then leave. The live stream ended when we left the room, though the briefing continued. But I got the impression we stayed for the most substantial part of the briefing.
Our own Idaho Sen. Jim Risch came away with a different impression, and made that forcefully known at a subsequent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, where, questioning Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Risch asked, “Somebody in the White House has authority to press the button and stop the president, cut off the president’s speaking ability and sound. Who is that person?” Blinken responded, “There is no such person.”
Citing the NIFC live stream as evidence, Risch asked Blinken, “Are you telling this committee this does not happen, that there’s no one in the White House who pushes the button and cuts him off in mid-sentence?” “That’s correct,” Blinken responded.
A Republican National Committee tweet had suggested that was the reason for the end of the live stream, which ran on the White House website. But having been there, I can tell you that no one cut the president off; he continued talking. We could hear him as we left, starting to ask a question of Washington state Forester George Geissler. It’s just that the members of the press — including the one filming the video for the stream — left the room.
Current Washington, D.C. reporters say this is normal procedure. So how does it compare to past presidential visits to Idaho?
Local press members didn’t get to directly question Barack Obama when he visited Boise State University in 2015, though press pool members were allowed to accompany him on a tour of BSU’s Innovation Lab.
Obama also met privately for 10 minutes with Naghmeh Abedini, whose husband, the Rev. Saeed Abedini, had been imprisoned in Iran for two years. She then joined a crowd of thousands in the Caven-Williams Sports Complex, where we all got to hear Obama’s 33-minute speech, and she told reporters afterward, “It was just the kids and I and the president. … He was holding my hand the whole time. I could see that he cared, in his eyes.”
In 2005, President George W. Bush made no public remarks when he flew into Gowen Field, just waving, and headed up to Tamarack Resort, where he mountain-biked with then-U.S. Senator and former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. Bush then traveled back south and gave a speech at the Idaho Center in Nampa to a large audience of military families.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton toured flood damage in North Idaho, then flew to Boise, where Air Force One landed at the Boise Airport and Clinton entered a room right next to the runway where he proceeded to speak warmly with federal, state and local officials of both parties, from then-U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth to then-Gov. Phil Batt. I was among the numerous reporters there, and we witnessed the entire visit, from the landing of Air Force One, to the full meeting, which included a video of the worst of the flood damage, lengthy conversations with local and state officials including some on phone hookups from North Idaho, and then a statement from the president on the tarmac before he boarded Air Force One to depart.
“I’ve seen a lot of loss. But I’ve also seen what happens when the American people work together in the spirit of community,” Clinton said. “I think the lesson I have learned more than any other, in three years and a few days of being president, is that when this country works together, we never lose.” He added, “I will follow up on the suggestions we’ve gotten.”
Once he’d flown off, I remember comparing notes with then-Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey about the great questions we each had prepared for the president. Neither of us got to ask them.