Go Toward the Good

by Hope Hall

 

 

Barack Hussein Obama. POTUS. 44. The first…so many firsts. I offer perhaps a lesser known first: first President to have a videographer. Presidents have had official photographers in the White House since JFK, but videographers? Flies on the wall in the corridors of power, documenting private moments and meetings, recording audio and action frame by frame? President Obama, often dubbed Our First Tech President, was the first to take this brave leap. And for six life-changing years, I was there to help him jump.

 

*********

 

Full disclosure: I’ve always been a big hippie. Now I don’t exactly mean it in the sense of 1970s central casting—counter-culture, flowing skirt, peace flag version (though admittedly this could describe me at times)—but rather as my name Hope asks for. As a small human I took shape in the southern, breezy climes of Mexico, Brazil, and California, and I discovered that the calm I found as a gymnast then ballerina then modern dancer helped me navigate the stresses of my loving, chaotic, blended family. I realized, as a tiny teenager, that I had a choice in how I spent my time and with whom, and that this feeling, the peace I felt and sense of ease in my own body, was what I would follow through life. What rolled onward and flowed from that marker of a moment has been a lifetime of exploration of the inner life, of mindfulness through movement and meditation, and of an openness to the ever-expanding science of health. 

 

I took to photography as a kid, but in my late twenties, I began to shoot motion picture instead of single, silent frames. I considered this move an extension of my life as a dancer. It was all about movement. It was all about relationship. One of my mantras as a filmmaker — and as a human — is that it’s all about who. Who I get to work alongside, who I collaborate with, who I spend my time with. And that compels me to go toward the good: the good people, the good moments. As my father taught me: smile and say hello, be tolerant, and refuse to be insulted. 

 

This is particularly relevant in the connection between cinematographer and subject. That collaboration is the source of the content you create; the footage is a direct result of the relationship, and that ever-shifting, shared ground between my camera and what it’s capturing is a source of endless curiosity for me. And when it’s the President of the United States blinking into your lens, and your footage will help tell his story both now and deep into the future, supporting the health and well-being of that relationship is more important than ever. 

 

********

 

The date was May 31st, the year was 2011. I know that never and always are inherently inaccurate words, but I can honestly say that I, Hope Elizabeth Hall, never, never, never imagined I’d ever set foot inside the White House. Yet there I was, on my first day as Presidential Videographer, being greeted happily by the 44th President of these United States as he strode in to complete insert big number of insert impossible number of items on that day’s schedule.  My job was to document the President’s day, to capture behind-the-scenes, observational video of him doing his job, from within the inner workings of the White House to the ends of this round earth.

 

I was quite suddenly a foreign exchange student in a truly unimaginably strange land. I didn’t know the language, the customs, the local dress. But I was there to learn, observe, and capture. And the passport to this foreign land? My video camera. 

 

*******

 

My mandate was strategic, not archival—my position was housed in the (first-ever) White House Office of Digital Strategy. This meant contributing video, edited or raw, from access no one else had to the endless variety of assignments this team tackled via 'the hundreds of platforms, accounts, and campaigns we shepherded through the halls of power, from rapid response to long-term projects and everything in the months days hours and nano-seconds between. Our mission statement took a while to develop, but it eventually formed into: connecting people with purpose, by meeting them where they are, which is online. What that meant for me, day to day? Get quick, real quick, at churning out viral vids, all while keeping up with a team of people traveling from said halls of power to said ends of said round earth and back again, and then doing it all over again. And again. And again.

 

It was early in my time at the White House, and I had just finished filming a scene in the Oval, a handful of kooky kids (red cowboy boots and rockin’ outfits to meet the boss? nice choice!) taking departure photos with the President, followed by his call to the coach of the Stanley Cup-winning Bruins. I was about to exit stage left when he called after me. 

 

“Hey Hope!” he said. That unmistakable voice, from behind that unmistakable desk. I stopped in my tracks and turned around, then froze. I had spoken to the boss directly before but in crowded, roaring backstages on the road during the ’08 campaign, then in the clunky bunker of transition and around its edges of wonky policy and staff announcements, and over the first few weeks since joining the White House, but so far these were conversations in chaotic situations, typically interstitial and jocular, and all with crews of other staffers in on the banter. 

 

“Seems like we’re filming more stuff,” he began. “Is this part of a bigger plan?” 

 

“Well,” I stammered. “I…don’t want to miss anything.” 

 

“Okay,” he said, “So there is a bigger plan. We’re just kind of seeing how it goes.” 

 

I talked about documenting his presidency while doing no harm, about not impeding the process, about being conscientious that the camera changes the room. I explained how I wanted my work to help carry out his mandate of transparency and engagement.

 

“And I really mean it,” I said, trying to gain my composure. “I want to hear if things are not working.” 

 

“No, it’s working fine,” said the leader of the free world, waving away my concerns with a benign arc of his presidential hand from behind the witness to history that is the Resolute Desk, on which his feet may or may not have been plonked. 

 

******

 

I knew from that first conversation in the Oval that I’d have to be ever-ready with answers to his questions, and I felt that he was genuinely curious about the evolution of my approach. 

 

Over the ensuing years, the boss and I continued this conversation. We talked backstage while introducers busted blithely — or rebelliously — through the finish line ribbon of their agreed upon time limit, giving us moments to fill. We talked while I perfected the shot for his weekly address, the one piece of my portfolio that afforded me the directorial space to set everything up instead of chasing after the President and sneaking into the scene hopefully relatively unnoticed, forced to accept whatever light/mis-en-scene/audio limitations were present. We talked striding along the Colonnade as he asked about my new camera (no detail escapes his notice), and as I mused (read: geeked out on tech specs) about the finer points of my slick update to the decidedly unergonomic dinosaur I’d been lugging around for years, and as he took my camera into his own hands, turned it on me, and interviewed me (read: geeked out) on philosophical specs like the light and shade of my methodology, of the ethics therein. We talked while the motorcade rejiggered itself in San Jose (CR, not CA, but maybe in CA, too, it all gets geographically blurry) to get the 15-25 vehicles backed up and lurched forward to line up in the completely opposite direction than they’d been poised to go since the night before, all because the schedule had changed on a dime.

 

I shared with him how so much of what I do as a documentary filmmaker is explore that elusive element called tone, how motion picture is not just picture matched with sound moving through time but actually the relationship between the two, from synched and humming as one to contrapuntal and tense, and everything in between. I talked about the concept of hot and cold and how it fits into crafting the shape of the relationship between picture and sound. And I talked about how surprised I continued to be that the most oft-asked question I got while on the job was: “So…what’s he really like?” I saw the core of my job as trying to answer that question through portraiture using hot and cold picture and sound moving through time and space in relationship to each other that conveys in its tone what it might actually might feel like to be him.

 

*****

 

There I am, in the Arabian Desert. Picture me in a starkly post-modern version of a Bedouin tent (replete with marble floors), with no women’s room, so I am assigned a watch-man when I have no choice but to use the capacious men’s room (also replete with marble floors). There I am, navigating access and negotiating who might go where for the bilateral meeting with the King even though we all know that all bets are off once those magic, creaking, two-story doors crack open to let us in. There I am, standing alongside my eight Saudi counterparts (yep, this King had eight videographers) near the end of an 18-hour day somewhere in the blur of a ten-day foreign trip, grinning for a 21st century selfie, the only one not brandishing a sword.

 

Speaking of sand: What I learned quickly is that working in the White House is like navigating a landscape of ever-shifting sand. It’s like trying to plan when the clock’s hands are swirling in both directions at the same time, without even a shred of a sense of a predictable rhythm. Everything changes, moment to moment, all the time. It’s living in the face of the highest stakes possible in an atmosphere that is notoriously risk-averse. For me, specifically, it was about trying to make visible the work of this heartfelt, thoughtful, Presidential endeavor by means of an incredible optical sensor with a powerful directional mic. And doing it with the hope that the kids and the baby boomers and everyone in between would not only feel compelled to register a like to that pithy, authentic, surprising video but perhaps even (here’s the brass ring for digital strategy) feel engaged. 

 

****

 

I began a typical workday biking down the hill, feeling my molecules rearrange as I swooped along, just a person going to work, walking through Lafayette Square after locking up my bike outside of the security perimeter and moving into a fast walk to get to the Office of Digital Strategy in time for our morning meeting. We’d go around the cramped room offering strategy on obstacles and opportunities, and as the mama of the group, I’d often find a way to insert some sort of announcement centered around work-life balance and mindfulness. We’d talk through that day’s coverage, and then it was off to the races, running over and across West Executive Avenue with my camera rig to join the boss in the Oval Office for friendly competition with Spelling Bee champs, or signing an Executive Order, or hosting another bilateral diplomatic meeting or honoring NASCAR or World Series or Super Bowl winners. Or maybe it would be policy advisors of any sort in the Roosevelt Room, or a sit-down interview in the Blue/Red/East/State Dining/Cabinet Room but never the Green Room (because green and videocameras don’t get along). 

 

On many days, I was instead racing from that morning meeting to find my spot in the motorcade to ride to Andrews to catch Air Force One to a church service in Charleston, or to a tour of the future (and maybe a drop-by for a sandwich made by thoughtful moms and pops) in Detroit, or to a rally in St. Louis, or to visit a refinanced block in Reno, or to a campaign stop at the manse of — insert name you’d recognize here — in Los Angeles. Never a dull moment. 

 

Back and forth, out of the office, back into the office, filming, editing, meeting, interrupting each and any thing to suddenly do the other thing, more often than not actually sprinting to keep up with a shift in the schedule, running into folks from other offices, passing each other with a big hello if in the midst of said sprint, or hopefully stopping for a hug and a chat if not. 

 

Then there were the international trips, every few months, always looming, every day and night of which were crammed to within an inch of their lives with speeches, meetings, drop-bys, cities, countries, all of which had been diplomatically wrangled for months, if not years. Mustering the insight to figure out what to pack in terms of gear, equipment, clothes. Flying overnight, figuring out when to stop working and sleep, how to sleep in your chair or work it so that somehow you got a precious spot on the floor, and making a real effort to make a memorizable mental note on how to actually pack successfully next time, because you land at 6am and the pomp and circumstance lined up on the tarmac means running off the plane in an outfit that hopefully won’t make news for its diplomatic insufficiency while lugging bags of said gear and equipment that somehow hopefully go unnoticed despite their uncouth sloppiness. No pressure.

 

Film while jostling people with gear, pair up with counterpart if I have one, smile and borrow from my tired, addled brain a few niceties in said counterpart’s tongue, while continuing to jostle and film, also while Instagram-ing video with the Official White House phone, then scramble to find my assigned van in the motorcade while hoping to find the communications staffer I need to look at said Instagram post to make sure I both cover my ass and don’t end up bringing down the Presidency with my social media digital strategy video antics. Once in the van, commiserate on how our blackberries wouldn't get cell service here in insert name of foreign land (hello, South Korea!). Film the folks lined up on either side of the motorcade (and wave, and cry, and possibly Instagram). 

 

All day, and often long into the night. Repeat. At some point in the day or night, if I’m lucky, finding a water cooler somewhere for a moment of sustenance and respite, in some forlorn hallway in the Vatican. Lugging my video gear plus laptop and external drive, searching for an out-of-the-way place with wifi and 120v sockets where I can edit footage while always keeping a trained ear on staffers’ movements so as not to get left behind, or risking it with no power so I can grab some precious quiet and room to edit in the van before everyone else gets in there. Madly blackberrying the team back home, working on what to post, if to post, confirm the caption, confirm the hashtag, time change bedamned, knowing that regardless of the time difference, there was usually someone in DC addled enough to be active on their work phone while all their neighbors and friends and lovers and pets slept. Falling into the hotel lobby around midnight, some dramatically comic staggering and laughter and relief, and an eye toward the hotel bar for just enough of a boost and shift in perspective through a conversation to make the time stolen from precious sleep worth it, shared with a dear friend or a new friend, usually someone inside the government bubble but not always. Heading up to a secure floor, which means getting off the elevator a floor or two short, then eyeballing the stair + arrow notes taped to the wall of the hallway, up the stairs with hellos to the Secret Service agents for whom your heading to bed represents some of the last activity they’ll see for their night shift in that windowless stairwell, unbroken glow stick at their feet, resignation in their face. One last blackberry check, maybe an encouraging word to or from a friend a few doors or floors down, set that damned phone alarm and in five or six hours, start all over again.

 

It’s Newtown. It’s Cuba. It’s the boss heading to dinner early — i.e. now — instead of to that meeting you’re lurking at, so he can come back later and do that call from the Oval. It’s the Blue Room and a 106 year-old dancing woman changing hearts and minds. Situation Room. Golf now, right now, because his crazy schedule means he basically won’t get to be outside and walk where he wants for another two weeks. It’s him taking the podium, replacing the press secretary for the day (surprise, press!) in the Brady Press Briefing Room. Situation Room. It’s meeting the Dalai Lama, in secret, because…China. Situation Room. A shooting. Great Falls with the girls on a Saturday afternoon. A shooting. Another shooting. Obamacare on the verge of being repealed. Another shooting. Situation Room. Putin wants to meet. Mandela is gone. Another shooting. Another. And another.

 

***

 

Within months of starting the job, while continuing to be convinced that I was having the adventure of a lifetime, I started to feel the drag toward the precipice of that charcoal party trick that is the allure of burnout. Snarling at a typo in a potential intern’s resume: out of character. Crying: welcome in my personal life, surprising on the job. And the injuries? Oof, they came fast, and they came hard. A fall and a cracked kneecap in Colombia. An impossible-to-ignore goose egg on the forehead plus two black eyes from running smack into the half-open door to the Colonnade. One day while he was prepping Obama backstage right before a speech, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saw me swaying on my feet and because I was clearly about to faint stopped mid-prep to find me a seat next to a fan, and place a water and a cookie into my clammy hands.

 

The President’s physical therapist and I became buds as he continued to patch me up and send me back into the ring with warm encouragement after I’d finished my thread of advice on how to be the dad he wants to be in the headscratcher world of stage parenting a ballerina daughter. We talked health, we talked well-being, we talked about the single biggest contributor to both: sleep. And soon, that is what this job became: a math problem. How do I reverse-engineer the life I want, one where I show up thriving and capable of delivering the kind of coverage and work that my boss — that incredible human — deserves. And since that work is creative, it comes from within. 

 

What I didn’t know was that Barack Hussein Obama would be my unexpected guide in achieving the moment to moment mindfulness I sought. I didn’t anticipate — who could have? — that one of the greatest gifts my job would give me was the opportunity to learn from my boss about the primary importance of the care and feeding of my own inner life. 

 

Taking my cues from him and parroting back his model for self-care — in his case, that meant room in the most litigated schedule on the planet for desk time, reading time, personal time, time for a workout in the morning, and dinner with the family — I took a look at my life and had to consider: what would be my non-negotiable self-savers? Once a week: Hope Time. Once a month, acupuncture or massage. Regularly: Yoga. Bike rides—commuting or meandering. Sunday morning thermos of coffee and a trip to the wildness of the woods, or the mercurial waters of the Eastern Shore or the Potomac. Sunday suppers with my sister and her family, regularly forgetting the 40 year age difference between my nephew and me and often culminating in a dance party in the kitchen, sometimes my dad joining from the West Coast.

 

Stress is stress no matter the conditions. While working for the President is an exceptional condition, I would posit that no matter the position we’re in, we are living in chronically stressful times. While these times may be deeply interesting and revelatory and full of growth and destruction and everything in between, what humans have been crooning for millennia, in sharp poetry and in lilting prose, is a message that still comes through, if you’re listening: it’s all about love, and our capacity for it. And the source of that love is singular, it’s the only source we have. It’s our very own inner lives.

 

**

 

Four years into the job, my dad became critically ill. The day I got the call that he had fallen the night before, been found, and had just been admitted to the ICU, everything stopped. I put the camera down, walked out of the White House, hopped a plane at National to try to make it to him before his body gave out, then repeated that trip over and over, for three months, until he finally succumbed. To type that sentence is to work with the throat as it closes and tightens around tears and love and a smile. 

 

Somewhere in that tempest of a time I’m shuffling along some Santa Monica sidewalk not wanting to go up to my dad’s hospital room but not being able to get there soon enough — I might have been crying at the palm trees overhead — when suddenly a phrase came to me. I was perhaps talking to President Obama in my mind, as I often did on those days. The phrase came to me, again and again. This life of ours, it’s all about love. 

 

I returned to the White House after a walkabout of grief involving the Pacific Coast Highway and the California Redwoods and whiskey. The day I got back, Obama and I walked along the Colonnade and lingered in the Outer Oval and talked about life, and about death. I told him his daughters were so lucky to have him as a dad. He told me my dad was so lucky to have me as a daughter. While no photos exist, I know it happened. I know how thoughtful that guy is. Truly, no detail escapes his notice. At some point, I blurted out the phrase that had come to me. And elegantly, assuredly, and with perhaps a knowing nod mixed with a bemused shake of his graying head, he agreed with me. “Hope, take all the time you need.” 

 

*

 

My dad’s death and my travels along the road leading up to it forced the gentle and blessed hand of sustainability. I had by this point seen many colleagues drop like flies and burn out from the best jobs ever. I started warning the next wave as I saw them careening towards that same cliff. Among the things I most admired about Obama were his crystal clarity and infamous calm, his love of and devotion to taking the long view, his belief in a management style that encourages those he works alongside to do their best work (drawing from the campaign motto: respect, empower, include), and his deep understanding of the value of advocating for the vibrance of his own health. All this was inspiration. All this pointed the way toward living a thoughtful, flexible, generous, playful, kind, useful day-to-day life.

 

My video colleagues and I formalized our relationships into structures and systems that would support and encourage us to make our work together the best work we could do, the best of the best, as our boss deserved. To this day I like to call this advocating for PQ, Presidential Quality. It works, even at home from behind an unresolute desk. 

 

We hired incredible people. We worked collaboratively. It showed in the work. The Office of Digital Strategy eventually grew to eighteen staffers who were behind the official social media accounts for the White House—POTUS, FLOTUS, VPOTUS, and Dr. Biden—plus campaigns, Cabinet Members, staffers, and cross-agency efforts. I was the oldest person on the team, in most cases by decades. These were whiz kids, still are, and some of the very finest humans I have had the honor and pleasure of working alongside. Pretty much every day we released at least some snippet of video somehow, despite getting challenged by every variable you can imagine. The edit process made me learn to work quickly — I’d been trained in the art of slowness, subtlety, and nuance — and definitely made me a better cinematographer. Because part of the fun of editing is grumbling at the cinematographer, and…see what I’m saying? You learn a lot grumbling at yourself.

 

We had two constant video products during my six years, the weekly address, which is the current version of FDR’s fireside chats, and West Wing Week, which was a weekly wrap up released every Friday and featured what the President had been up to the previous seven days. It ended up having a lovely side benefit: White House staff would catch a glimpse of themselves on the job and be able to show their friends and family a moment from their lives in the bubble. And because staff looked for themselves in it, they also got a sense of the larger picture, the bigger endeavor that they were toiling away at, often in obscurity. And I, too, started to be able to look up and out more and more often. Some space took shape around the words, the feelings, the thoughts, the schedule, the pace, the work. I was no longer alone. I was no longer a one-woman band. 

 

I posted a sign on our office wall that said: “Go Toward the Good.” It may sound like an annoying cliché, but I began to think of it as an organizing principle. I started holding brown bag lunches on mindfulness and the creative process with other White House teams, asking them what they were grappling with, helping them to strategize on everything from getting their morning meditation going to making that leap, you know, that big leap in life, because they’re actually happiest when they’re climbing rock walls or writing pithy essays or singing arias. Finding time to honor those happy places. I started intoning phrases like, “Our lives — and that includes our work  — are only as good as we feel,” first at Team Digital Strategy meetings, then beyond. Dear friends dubbed me Soul Doctor Hall. It still makes me smile. 

 

And whenever I got the chance to advise a new hire, I would point out that the single most-oft committed flaw I’d seen take people down in that strange place was arriving and feeling that they had to have the answers to all the possible challenges. “Imagine you’re a foreign exchange student,” I’d say, and they’d chuckle. “You are,” I’d get all serious voiced on them. I’d describe that as you do when you humbly arrive in a totally foreign place, you give yourself time and space to start learning the language, the landscape, the characters, the backstories. You observe. You ask questions when there’s an opening. You take it all in, as much as you can handle every day, and then you retire to rest each evening, calling your loved ones and chatting and joking in your home tongue. Eventually, I’d say, you’ll find yourself starting to pass, making a joke at the proverbial checkout counter, and even if it doesn’t make the imagined cashier chuckle, at least they’ll appreciate that you were trying. 

 

While the rhythm of every day during those six years meant careening from one event or crisis to another, the cycle of those days also began to follow somewhat predictable, repetitive rhythms. A few times a year, President Obama and I would bond in disbelief as we walked away from greeting scientists, artists, philosophers. He’d catch me grinning from behind the camera in the Blue Room as I took in James Turrell (James Turrell!) standing in the light of Linda Ronstadt (Linda Ronstadt!), or Toni Morrison (Toni Morrison!) peering in from the Green Room just before receiving some national medal of awesomeness. So while other staffers blackberried and tended to other logistics, POTUS and I riffed, every time, on our love of and luck in honoring these incredible people. In our own version of interstitial banter, we would take a moment before striding out of the Blue Room to soak it in, together. Can you believe Toni Morrison was here, right here, in the Blue Room? Then, invariably, he’d add a variant on the same sentence, just between us: These are our people, Hope, the scientists, the artists. Then I’d add my variant on my same sentence: The thoughtful, reflective people, the critical thinkers, the generous ones. We’d tap our temples, we’d nod and grin, eyebrows up. And it was my way of knowing that my approach, my unlikely approach, was welcome here. That this artist-in-residence was welcome here, that I was seen, that I was contributing to good energy in the White House, because even I belonged there. 

 

Just like he used to joke, “You see? I told you I’d bring Hope to Washington!” 

 

 

 

coda

 

I’ll leave you with an image, a top contender for a favorite clip, a butterfly that we’re missing now that no one in the White House is doing this job: Charleston. Cameras rolling this big scene live from the back of the church, respectfully sequestered on the riser set up five hundred feet back, at the entrance to the church hall. 

 

Obama used to joke that I was either beaming or crying behind the camera. That day was a crying day. I was the one video camera who could roam from backstage to the rafters behind the hundreds of forlorn mourners—including the grieving children in the front row, white socks and shiny shoes swaying above the ground—to the base of the stage where the boss took to the lectern to deliver his address, and, yes, I was crying much of the time. No room in my camera for anything other than what will save us all: consolation and reassurance and hope.

 

My favorite angle on his face is a two thirds angle instead of straight on, preferably the left side from just below. Having glanced over the speech draft, I knew to let myself roam to get details, from rows of military caps in hand to tear lines drawn on faces, but for sure to be as close up as possible on the boss for the end. I’d heard and filmed the banter backstage about singing (not a chance). So when he uttered the phrase Amazing Grace from his prepared words, and then slowly reiterated them in an unprepared way, shaking his head and tilting that graying head down so his eyes could close and he could take a minute, I knew that the risk and the awkwardness of sneaking behind the wreaths to be just at the foot of the stage while staying hidden from the main live shot was worth it. 

 

Because there, in my lens, while rolling, was Barack Hussein Obama, 44th President of these United States, working a decision around his cerebellum, right there in the twitches of that decision in his jaw, his temple. And as he lifted his head and busted through the scripted version of consoling a nation of mourners and began to sing, really sing, that dirge of a beauty that is Amazing Grace, there is now in the National Archives one frame of his eyes looking into the lens that registers that he knew I was on it, that I was beaming and crying right back, that I had the two thirds close up that no one else had, that tears were pouring down in rivulets while I held the shot from just below that stage, crouching behind the wreaths. He saw that I had it, the moment when he was healthy and present and kind and flexible and generous enough to be making that heartfelt and oh so bold decision, and that I had shown up ready to be ready to deliver, too. That we can all, from now until as deep into the history of time as the National Archives stands, watch him decide to risk it all and start singing a song that just might heal us all.