“Mark, when was President Obama’s last full news conference?” asks a reporter from Reuters who, apparently on deadline, has just popped into the cramped press booth Mark Knoller shares with two colleagues from CBS News in the back of the White House Press Room.
“March 6, 2012,” Knoller says without looking up from his computer screen as he updates his Twitter feed. “It was 44 minutes long. It was in the briefing room.”
Knoller explains that although Obama held his first post-election news conference this afternoon, November 14, none of his interactions with reporters since March 6 count as a full-on news conference. They can only be described as limited question periods, unscheduled appearances in the briefing room, or impromptu exchanges. The Reuters reporter doesn’t ask, but Knoller could tell him exactly how many of those there were.
“Okay, March 6,” the reporter says. “That’s what we’ll go with. We’re counting on you.”
I turn to Knoller, who is typing a tweet while listening to three evening news broadcasts from a bank of TVs above his desk. “Do you get a lot of questions like that?” I ask.
He chuckles softly and shrugs, as if to say, “You think anyone else keeps track of this stuff?”
• • •
No one does—not in such comprehensive detail. Not in the White House press corps and not on the White House staff, either. Which explains why a steady stream of reporters, presidential staffers, and even press secretaries have routinely e-mailed or dropped in on Knoller for the past 16 years seeking facts about the daily life of the President of the United States.
Knoller—who reports for CBS on the Web, radio, and occasionally TV—is the unofficial records keeper of the presidency, the statistics savant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Nearly every day, he logs every movement, act, and utterance of the commander in chief in an obsessively detailed archive of text files and spreadsheets.
Ask Knoller the most obscure or mundane point of presidential trivia and he’ll have an answer in seconds. You could start with the easy stuff, like public appearances. As of my meeting with Knoller, Obama had made 1,818 speeches, remarks, and public comments as President, using a Teleprompter 689 times.
But then pick something harder. What does the President do in his downtime? Well, since taking office, Obama had played 106 rounds of golf, 50 of them on the course at Joint Base Andrews, home of Air Force One—on which, by the way, Obama had flown 827 times. Knoller has similar stats on George W. Bush and a partial record for Bill Clinton.
You could get personal. How often have the President and Mrs. Obama hit the town? The First Couple has dined out at restaurants 18 times, including date nights in Washington, New York City, Paris, Martha’s Vineyard, and Hawaii.
I finally stump Knoller when I ask if he has any information about Obama’s dog.
“Sorry, no numbers on Bo,” he says.
I had wondered if Knoller could tell me how many times Bo had flown on Marine One, the President’s helicopter. Knoller doesn’t know, but he says Obama has flown aboard 791 times, of which 250 were departures from the White House.
Knoller is often a more authoritative and responsive source of information than anyone on the President’s staff. While preparing for an interview with George W. Bush in 2007, Scott Pelley, the 60 Minutes correspondent and anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News, asked Knoller how many days the President had spent at Camp David.
“Three hundred sixty-five,” Knoller said.
“Really?” Pelley asked. “A whole year? Can’t be.”
“It’s 365 as of last weekend,” Knoller affirmed, “but I’ll check if you insist.” Knoller did. He was correct.
Knoller broke Pelley in at the White House in the late ’90s, back when Pelley says he was “a green correspondent who couldn’t find my way from the Rose Garden to the Oval Office. Every word I said, everything I did, I checked with Mark first. I could ask Mark anything—anything—about the Presidents he’s known, and he either had the answer off the top of his head or in the bottom of a file.”
• • •
The file Pelley speaks of is actually a collection of about a hundred Microsoft Word documents and one Excel spreadsheet—in which he logs all of President Obama’s press interviews—that Knoller updates at the end of each day, around 7 o’clock, after most of the other reporters have gone home. The records have importance beyond tracking the President’s ceremonial duties.
Knoller knows how many fundraisers Obama held in this past election cycle (220 as of October 11), how many people attended, and the ticket prices. He keeps track of how many times the President visits each state—an illuminating statistic during the campaign. Obama made 22 visits to Ohio, by Knoller’s count, and focused the majority of his visits on just nine states. The record confirmed, and likely informed, what every campaign journalist reported from the trail: that the President, like his opponent, focused almost all his attention on a handful of battlegrounds, to the general exclusion of the rest of the country.
“Just by looking at that,” Knoller says, pointing to his tally, “you see what his strategy was. I don’t have to be spun [by presidential campaign staff]. I have my own tactical playbook on the President.”
But as he scans through the archive, I understand why Knoller is the only person keeping such records—it’s hard to imagine anyone else having the discipline for such an undertaking, or even the interest.
“You back this stuff up, right?” I ask.
“For years I didn’t,” he confesses. “Now I use this.” He shows me a hand-held portable hard drive, to which he copies the records so he can take them on trips. I’m unnerved to learn that the data-redundancy system for the most extensive and useful archive of presidential activity of the past 16 years relies on an easily misplaced device that Knoller carries in a satchel.
“Do you store anything in the cloud?” I ask.
“What’s the cloud?”
I pause, wondering how I might persuade him to try it. “It’s like using someone else’s hard drive as a safeguard. You know, it’s out there . . . in the cloud.”
He looks aghast.
“No!” he says. “This stays with me.”