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Remembering April 4, 2005
Lewis Levine 1

I’ll always remember April 4, 2005.

It was the day the family of Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith received his posthumous Medal of Honor for gallantry in Iraq from former President George W. Bush.

It also was my first visit to the White House since taking a tour in the 1970’s and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited and even thrilled to be there.

The first stop for any visitor to the White House grounds is the north gate entrance facing Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s most often the spot where tourist snap their photos with the White House in the background.  

At the time, you pressed a buzzer and a uniformed Secret Service agent would ask through an intercom system if he could help you.

That being my first time and me being nervous, I uttered something to the effect that I was there for the Medal of Honor ceremony.

The agent asked me my name and after a few minutes of silence buzzed me in to stand before what looked like a bullet proof window.  After checking my ID, the agent handed me my identification back along with a plastic card which had the word “press” on it hanging by one of those metal chains used for a keepsake rabbit foot.

From there I was buzzed into a room with a turnstile and an X-ray machine, where I had to place the plastic press badge against a reader with a picture of the White House on it.  Then I had to pass another screening hurdle, then walked up the north driveway where the networks have camera stands set up.  

One thing I noticed at the White House is everything is referred to as a wing — West Wing, East Wing, South Wing and so on. As a matter of fact I liked this concept so much I adopted it at home. I tell visitors to my house “let’s go sit in the South Lawn.”  My favorite spot in my home is the East Living Room, it’s where I can prop up my feet and relax.

One thing that caught my eye was how sleepy the press folks were as they dozed off in the theater style chairs with news organization name plates fastened to them as they waited for carefully scripted events to begin.

As I mentioned earlier I was there to cover the presentation of the Medal of Honor to Smith’s family. It was held in the East Room.

During the wait, photographers are given an opportunity to do what is called a “preset,” and I learned that April day a preset is not for the faint of heart.

A mad rush ensued for the best spot to shoot photos. If you survived the stampede, you are ushered out of the room by people who at some time in their lives had to have served as drill sergeants in the military.

Back in the press room, the wait began for the call to return to the East Room where the event will take place.

Finally an announcement came over the loudspeaker: “if you are covering the Medal of Honor please line up at the bottom of the steps by the double door.”

The regulars were already lined up when we were ushered back  into the East Room, where dozens of living Medal of Honor winners were sitting.

It was impressive to see so many of America’s heroes in one place. Also in attendance were Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, senators and the Smith family.

At this point, the room was full.

President Bush gave a short speech, then, Smith’s wife Birgit Smith, his son David A. Smith and daughter Jessica M. Smith took the stage with the president as the citation was read.

The most heartbreaking moment of the ceremony came when President Bush handed the Medal of Honor to David Smith. It was enclosed in a glass case and as the youngster looked at it his bottom lip quivered.

About an hour after the ceremony the Smith family met with the national media at the stake out point just outside the west wing entrance.  

Since that day, I’ve returned to the White House more times than I care to remember and,  honestly, the thrill is gone. But I will always have fond memories of my visits there — like the time a press staffer grabbed me and chastised me for photographing a gaggle with the press secretary.  

Gaggles are informal press briefings.

Then there was the time we missed our photo op with the president, and me and another photographer were detained by the Secret  Service for trying to enter the White House without an escort.  

And then there was the night President Obama decided to make a late night statement on the passage of the Affordable Care Act,  making me miss my train back to Virginia.  

My all-time favorite memory is as I was leaving the Oval Office following a photo op, President Bush saw me wiping sweat from my forehead and asked me if it was hot outside.

One last thing: oval office photo ops last 60 seconds or less, so I learned two things during my visits to the Oval Office. Shoot quick and crouch down.

If you don’t, the photographers behind you will push you out of the way because all’s fair in love and photos.
Levine is retired Army and  a senior correspondent for the Coastal Courier. He primarily covers public safety stories, but has run across a president or two in his travels. He’s really quite famous.

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