The Commons: He was here

Obama's day in Ottawa was bewildering and remarkable, poignant and underwhelming

The Commons: He was here

When all is said and written, that much is clear. For whatever else follows from this, that is what seems to have mattered most. Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States of America, came to Ottawa today. He moved in our midst. This much we can absolutely confirm.

The rest of a bewildering and remarkable, poignant and underwhelming day is details.

The first set of police officers was positioned at street level. If the appropriate credentials were hanging from your neck you were allowed to proceed up the stairs, across the path and through the front doors of West Block. There stood two more members of law enforcement. If your credentials were deemed sufficient at this point, you were allowed to turn right, walk down a hall, then turn left and walk down a second hallway, where another officer gave the same badges a third review. Then you were asked to remove your personal effects and pass through a metal detector.

Through the underground tunnel that connects West Block to Centre Block, up one floor by elevator and up another by stairs, one arrived at the scene. There, police officers were positioned an average of every 15 feet. Reporters were directed to a committee room to the right of Parliament’s main hall. Admittance to this place required at least a third badge. Those lacking that were told they could turn around, go back to wherever they’d come from and watch the proceedings on television.

In hindsight, this was exceedingly rational advice.

This was, after all, a production. Strolling where one could was roughly akin to existing on the edge of a movie set. Spotlights were rigged to illuminate every corner that might be captured on film. Alternating Canadian and American flags dominated the set. Black cables ran along the floors and ceilings.

Clusters of photographers and cameramen were led like tour groups to and from positions where they might best record the most flattering images. At the airport, the Governor General and the President posed as if in friendly discussion. Later, the President and Prime Minister did likewise in Mr. Harper’s office. In the House foyer, television presenters in pancake make-up debated what these closely directed images might foretell for the real discussions they could not see.

Two thousand people gathered on the front lawn, the nearest kept from getting within 100 metres of Parliament’s entrance. There they stood in the snow to watch the President wave to them, his image obscured by a shield of bulletproof glass.

In the room reserved for reporters, a large projection screen allowed journalists to watch the events occurring in their immediate vicinity. Space in the main rotunda was reserved for those carrying cameras, save for one reporter whose job it was to report back on his observations. Down the west hallway, a barrier had been set up where the President would ascend with the Prime Minister after signing the official guestbook. Four members of parliament stood there to gawk. Reporters who had gathered in the House foyer tried to do likewise, but were kept back another 50 metres. One handed her camera to the Natural Resources Minister so that she might snap a souvenir photo as the President passed.

From this removed position it was possible to see the President unobstructed with one’s own eyes. He looked as he does on TV. Perhaps with greyer hair. Though that might’ve been an optical illusion caused by the spotlights.

On his way to the Prime Minister’s Office he passed over the foyer and waved to the reporters below, some of whom dutifully snapped photos. There were invisible meetings then, and another glimpse of the President as he descended the East staircase towards the Senate. Later, there was a press conference. Forty reporters each from the Canadian and American press galleries were permitted to attend. A total of four were allowed to ask questions. The two leaders offered bland answers to broad questions. An agreement of some sort was announced.

Little else happened. People loitered everywhere at the edges. Men and women in suits gathered outside Mr. Harper’s office and waited. Reporters stood around the foyer below, looking up every so often lest they miss a potential glimpse of something. A small gathering remained on the lawn, unable to see anything. In the media room, journalists interviewed each other and snapped pictures of themselves.

After the press conference and a short visit to the library, the President took his leave, waving once more through the bulletproof glass. The crowd cheered once more and then chased after his departing motorcade. One of the networks reported, at length, on the possibility he travelled then to the Ottawa market to purchase a Beaver Tail.

The parsing, at least on this side of the border, will continue like that into the night and for days and weeks to come. Almost all of it will be superfluous. The undeniable fact, verifiable truth and lasting image of this day will be this: Barack Obama was here. As meaningful or merely noteworthy as you consider that to be.