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The Big Easy: Where Nothing is Easy

After Nightly News and after our prime-time special concluded Monday night, we drove back to our hotel. Which also happens to be President Bush's hotel. Big mistake. In the old days (as recently as when I covered President Clinton), it wasn't unusual for people to enter the lobby of a major metropolitan hotel (depending on configuration) and have no clue that the Leader of the Free World was upstairs ordering room service. In the old days, it used to be cool to let it be known you were staying "at HIS hotel." No more. In the post-9/11 world, the very last place you want to stay is the president's hotel.

When we arrived last night, we were stopped at a steel barricade, manned by Secret Service, Louisiana State Police and National Guard troops with dogs. I explained that we simply wanted to go to our hotel rooms, and that I was joining up with the president's traveling "bubble" in the motorcade, early tomorrow. That's when a tall guy, straight-faced and apparently born completely without irony... approached our menacing rental car. He resembled both rare drawings of President Tyler and photos of Tommy Smothers. Anyway, we were "instructed" by this straight-faced guy with a blue blazer, an earpiece and male pattern baldness, that we "are holding due to a movement." 

There's just so much good material there. A rich trove, really. What he meant was: the president and the first lady were dining at Mother's Restaurant around the corner and would be moving through the streets in his motorcade, and so no one could possibly drive or walk anywhere near the hotel. The restaurant was even more heavily-fortified: members of the black-clad Secret Service "CAT" team were spotted in the back alley with massive, cello-sized automatic weapon cases, post-movement. Not a cello player among them.
Just to show that I was paying attention during my own years of dealing with the Secret Service, I asked to talk to the "SAC" (Special Agent in Charge). The call was placed to Washington, a call was placed inside the hotel, but the "SAC" was apparently not able to either hasten or break the movement.

We held, in the nighttime heat, for the duration of the movement. It seemed like the movement took forever. Then, the long hold was suddenly lifted. The male pattern baldness/blazer guy made the "movement over" sign with his hand, the troops parted, the dogs parted. Then they let us in. Elements of the motorcade were parked in the hotel driveway (the swanky new "on the road" version of the black Suburban and its twin decoy, both tricked out with flag stands and presidential seals on the rear passenger doors), as the aforementioned Leader had just walked through the lobby. I did enjoy getting a good look at the new generation motorcade communications vehicle -- a heavily-retrofitted Suburban nicknamed "Roadrunner," which allows the president to place a scrambled satellite telephone call to Gen. Abizaid, Vladimir Putin or Dick Cheney -- from a motorcade moving at 60 miles-an-hour. I also chatted up the White House technicians who were transporting the "blue goose" podium being used at today's speech by the president in New Orleans. Once in the rarefied air of our own hotel lobby, the Uniformed Secret Service then checked us all before we were allowed the thrill of entering, one hour later, our own hotel rooms. Next time, it's the Holiday Inn on the interstate.

It was a nice distraction for the first few minutes. The nighttime drive through parts of New Orleans East was downright depressing. There's no power for long stretches of the city. One of our producers said, "it looks like East Germany." And it did.

Our local station here, while airing our NBC documentary, added a "crawl" graphic at the bottom of the screen that said, in part, "IF YOU ARE OVERWHELMED (by the images on the screen)..." and then they offered a mental health call-in line. It's still that bad here. Just SEEING what these good people went through... is enough to send SOME of these good people... right over the edge.

It is still such a sad place.

Editor's note: If you missed Monday night's documentary about the first five days of Hurricane Katrina, in Brian's own words, you can read or watch it here.