Obama visits Asheville: Behind the scenes at Linamar
I'm a political wonk and anytime I get a chance to see the President of the United States up close and personal, I'm going to jump at it. Or in this case, click "Here."
On 2/11 at exactly 2:11 p.m. an email popped onto my computer screen from The White House Office of the Press Secretary announcing President Obama's visit to Linamar Corporation in Asheville.
The next paragraph read: "Members of the media who wish to cover the President's remarks must RSVP here by Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 at 5 p.m. EST."
I clicked here and filled in the form. My confirmation arrived Tuesday night.
Wednesday morning's check list: leave Hazelwood by 9 a.m. with camera, digital recorder, cell phone if I could find it, photo identification and a lanyard for press credentials from The Mountaineer and The Biltmore Beacon — which is why I get to do this neat stuff.
Later at Linamar I would be issued an official press card. Highway 25 in Arden was bumper to bumper and backed up. For an event that was open only to press and a few VIPs, a really long ribbon of rolling stock inched toward the manufacturing plant's entrance.
At the bottom of the hill a security officer asked, "Sweetie, are you a guest?"
I puffed up and dangled my Mountaineer card. "I'm with the press," I said.
At Linamar's brick security station cars were stopped again. If we were on the list, we got in. I was on the list. The big guys had been there since 6:30 a.m. or so — ABC, CBS, CNN and others. I parked and walked toward the warehouse.
Another security officer asked the "press-or-guest" question and pointed me toward the metal detector. A long line of invited folks snaked around the building but I was told to cut in front of everybody.
My purse was searched down to the Balsam Range Winter Concert Series program and a HART playbill.
"Anything else metal besides your jewelry?" the man with the wand asked. And then I was inside, with an hour and a half to wait.
Linamar employees in spiffy new black dress shirts emblazoned with the company's logo stood at attention every few yards in the cavernous room that reminded me of Dayco's "Big Blue." Bert of Linamar's Canadian operation was the occupational safety director.
"I'm here to make sure you don't fall over those wires," he said, pointing to the conduit criss-crossing the concrete floor. A chance company visit afforded him the opportunity to see the President.
"I was at the right place at the right time," he said. As I waited, I thought about the unwieldy logistics of a presidential visit to a manufacturing plant. I asked a tool-crib employee how much time they had to put this together. A small core group had been told Friday and everyone else got the news Monday, he said. Buncombe County EMS was standing ready.
When a representative of Spanish-speaking newspapers down East said in jest that he might faint from standing so long, an EMS technician didn't laugh.
"Don't do that," he said. "The very first thing we'd do is drag you out of this crowd, and it wouldn't be a pretty picture."
Buncombe County dignitaries sat in a cordoned-off bullpen just in front of the press. Asheville's Chief of Police William J. Anderson stood on the periphery, eyes darting. Occasionally a U.S. K-9 unit wandered through. As noon approached, the black suits glided in by twos and threes, talking into their shirt cuffs.
Then came the Pledge of Allegiance. The National Anthem was sung by a company associate. Employee Stratton Taylor introduced the Commander of Chief, who burst onto the makeshift stage in his trademark white dress shirt with sleeves rolled up and no jacket.
"Hello, North Carolina!" he shouted to an enthusiastic audience. "It's good to be back. I love Asheville."
It was a goose-bump moment. Interrupted often by applause, the President stayed on task, talking about Linamar's success and the success of workers like Jeff Brower who lost his job, went to A-B Tech and was hired by Linamar the day after his coursework concluded.
As a member of the Haywood Community College Board of Trustees, I liked it when the President said, "No job in America should go unfilled because somebody doesn't have the right skills to get that job."
On the way out Bill Eaker, coordinator of the Land of Sky Clean Vehicles coalition who lives in Waynesville looked my way and gave the two-thumbs-up sign.
Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman David Gantt stopped to chat:
"This is a great day for Buncombe County and for western North Carolina," he said.
Jonathan Austin, owner and editor of the Yancey County News with his wife Susan, said he came so she could see the President.
"We're the only employees we have, so we just put the 'closed' sign on the door and came."
Years ago I lived in a foreign country with a horrific history of suppressing political debate.I have good friends who wouldn't go across the street to see President Obama and they'd be the first to say so.
The point is, they're free to say so. And I'm free to say I get goose-bumps when I hear him. As the President said in concluding his remarks Wednesday, "God bless America."