The twists and turns of six minutes in the Oval Office

To many the President’s Oval Office is a scene in a favorite movie or TV show. For the New Zealand contingent who traveled to Washington DC with the Prime Minister it was an out-of-body experience, writes political editor Jo Moir.

Standing in the Oval Office and momentarily scanning the room, the first thing that popped to mind was Olivia Pope – star of the US TV series ‘Scandal’ – and scenes of her hiding behind curtains to the rear of the President’s desk to avoid the White House cameras.

It was an odd thought to have when President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern were sat just across the oval in front of the fireplace about to begin sharing their intentions for their first face-to-face meeting.

But for many the White House is and always will be a scene from a movie or favorite TV show.

Physically being in there doesn’t seem particularly real.

In some ways the whole will she/won’t she get a meeting with the President that Ardern has endured the past few weeks after she caught Covid not long before leaving has only added to the drama.

It has been very unclear whether Ardern would meet the requirements to actually go to the White House and if she did, whether the media would be able to go too.

When the media’s six minutes were up it was one big scramble to get the last photo, the last soundbite – all the while the President’s minders hustled everyone out with some force.

For a long time, the suggestion has been that any meeting or interaction between the leaders would be done outdoors, perhaps in the Rose Garden, to eliminate any concerns around Covid.

Most of us traveling with Ardern had written off making it into the Oval Office and that was if people didn’t catch Covid first – ruling them out of the visit altogether.

Three members of Ardern’s delegation caught Covid while in the States and didn’t make it to the White House.

One commented how shocked they were the media, consisting of seven reporters and two camera operators, had made it unscathed through to the end of the trip – especially when all but two haven’t had Covid before.

Given how high stakes the whole thing was and the importance of making it to Washington, mask use both indoors and out has been incredibly consistent from the journalists, and it paid off.

After passing the hurdle of the morning’s rapid antigen test, the next step was making our way through the strict security and dog sweep of our bags, while standing outside in what had quickly become a balmy 35 degrees.

From there it was past the long line of press tents, set up outside with the White House as the backdrop so multiple television channels can do live crosses at the same time, whatever the weather.

A row of tents are set up near the White House for political journalists to do their live crosses from. Photo: Jo Moir

Then it was into the White House briefing room, which was being used as a holding pen until the leaders were ready for the media.

The briefing room is famous in its own right – unlike our Beehive theater back in Wellington, where zero films or shows recreate the podium, New Zealand flags and staggered rows of media seats.

There had been a suggestion earlier in the day that some US media would join the New Zealand group for the Oval Office photo and initial remarks and that there could be interest in the stand-up with Ardern following the meeting.

Turns out Ardern is quite a drawcard, and when it came time to line up in preparation for the meeting, there were more US media than those who had flown half-way across the world.

There was a reasonable amount of pushing and shoving and once everyone was in the Oval Office Ardern could be seen scanning around in an attempt to find faces she recognized.

President Joe Biden during his opening remarks at the meeting. Photo: Joy Asico

Biden kick-started the talks by welcoming a “not-so-old but good friend” and laughed and smiled repeatedly throughout his exchange with Ardern.

Not the natural orator, he relied heavily on notes with jotted down talking points, while Ardern was much more free-flowing and spoke directly to Biden.

When the media’s six minutes were up it was one big scramble to get the last photo, the last soundbite – all the while the President’s minders hustled everyone out with some force.

Looking back, successfully capturing an Oval Office selfie on the way out seems a complete miracle.

The selfie of all selfies for Newsroom’s political editor Jo Moir.

From there it was a waiting game and then a short walk out to the designated spot the media had been given to do a stand-up with Ardern once the hour-long meeting was complete.

Despite acres of green lawn with trees for shade cover, the one spot media were allowed to set-up was hard-up against a hedge with a fraction of shade while the majority of people stood in the sun rammed up against a chain that could not be crossed.

New Zealand media went out early to secure a good spot and ended up having to hold their ground when the US media tried their best to muscle in at the last minute.

By this stage sweat was pouring down the front and back of everyone there and a few of the Kiwis were literally in the hedge.

At one point a tall American TV journalist came out from behind his camera and declared he was moving the microphone stand we’d so carefully positioned ourselves around to a spot that better suited him.

It could have been borderline heatstroke or just sleep deprivation and jetlag that kicked in, but several of the New Zealand media went at him.

When he was firmly told we had traveled across the other side of the world to be here and the stand-up was with our Prime Minister, he replied, “You’re at the WHITE HOUSE”.

Somehow, he gave in and after nearly an hour waiting in the sun – the meeting with Biden had run overtime – Ardern arrived and declared she had regrets wearing a jacket.

Ardern makes a habit out of giving New Zealand journalists a question each and a follow-up before moving to the next person, and on this occasion she made sure of it before accepting three questions from the American media desperately trying to get a comment.

Then it was back into the motorcade and off to the airport to catch a commercial flight back home.

President Joe Biden shows Jacinda Ardern around his office at the White House. Photo: Joy Asico

Ardern set a high bar for the 10-day long trip, and it seemed even her expectations were exceeded.

She has commented a few times the past week that she comes from a small town near Hobbiton – a long way from Washington DC.

When the Newsroom asked how significant the visit was, Ardern trotted out a diplomatic line about being an ambassador and how every meeting mattered whether it was at the White House or with a Pacific counterpart.

Pushed on it, Ardern conceded she’d had a bit of a political nerd moment about being at the White House and in the Oval Office.

Turns out the moment wasn’t lost on her either.

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