News & Politics

Ari Shapiro on His First Year Covering the White House for NPR

Even the President gets razor bumps. And other revelations.

For televised briefings, Ari Shapiro is in the second row of the White House press room. Photograph by Chris Leaman.

In March 2010, Ari Shapiro began covering the White House for NPR. We asked him to reflect on his first year at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

When I was a kid, my parents taught me that life becomes more interesting the more you learn. Our hikes in Oregon were richer once I could identify the birds, flowers, and wild mushrooms along the path. So I shouldn’t be surprised that in my first year covering the White House, I have become more interested in the presidency than I ever expected to be.

Here are some things I’ve learned.

1. Even the President gets razor bumps. During my first trip on Air Force One, President Obama visited the press cabin. As he stood next to my seat, I noticed shaving bumps on his neck. In that moment, he stopped being a symbol to me and became a three-dimensional human.

2. History makes the deadlines worthwhile. When President Obama nominated Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, I stood in the White House East Room watching the ceremony. It went longer than my editors expected, and I needed to get on the air. I was antsy, waiting for the ceremony to wrap up. Then I took a step back and realized I was watching history. I chilled out and soaked up the moment. It’s only radio.

3. The real Air Force One is more like the movie than the real West Wing is like the TV show. And you know you’ve spent too much time on the plane when you wipe your mouth with the napkin that says "aboard the presidential aircraft" instead of squirreling it away as a souvenir. Even the glamour of Air Force One wears off during a 26-hour flight to Afghanistan and back.

4. Hawks live on the White House grounds. And rodents. The former eat the latter. (Also, anything that happens on the White House grounds can be a metaphor.)

5. They’re not peacocks. Before I started this beat, I was afraid of pack journalism at the White House. I worried that the press corps would be full of preening, two-dimensional divas. The opposite is true. The people who sit in the White House briefing room every day are collegial, hard-working, and brilliant.

6. We’re all the “Christmas help.” Everyone who works in the White House—from the President to the butlers to the press corps (yes, we rank below the butlers)—has taken the baton from a predecessor and will hand it off to a successor. The institution is far greater than anyone in it. We’re just lucky enough to sprint along for part of the race.

This article first appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.