Skip to main content

White House press corps sleepwalks through Asia

By Dan Lothian, CNN White House Correspondent
For reporters covering President Obama during his Asia tour, catching a goodnight's sleep was few and far between.
For reporters covering President Obama during his Asia tour, catching a goodnight's sleep was few and far between.
  • Journalists race to meetings and speeches on presidential trip
  • "You all have really been working 24 hours a day," the national security advisor says
  • Correspondents joke that the nicer the hotel room, the shorter the stay
  • "You taste the world in small bites," Lothian says

Yokohama, Japan (CNN) -- Traveling with the president is always a plum assignment that becomes even sweeter during long trips to wonderful cities around the world.

You get to see temples and great walls, presidential palaces and spectacular government buildings.

This all happens at warp speed, because it's not a personal vacation, but often a high-level summit, or a speech to the Muslim world.

The routine rarely deviates from a well-written script: fly in on Air Force One or a charter plane, hop on a bus, speed to a venue, file your story, hop on a bus, jump on the plane, fly to your next destination, check into a fabulous room where you'll stay for only a few hours.

Correspondents love to joke that the nicer the room, the shorter the stay.

I liken this incredible journalistic journey to an appetizer. You taste the world in small bites, and if you like what's on the table, then you can return on your own dime for the full meal.

President Obama's jam-packed, 10-day trip to Asia was no different. Mumbai and New Delhi, India, check. Jakarta, Indonesia, check. Seoul, South Korea, check. And finally, Yokohama, Japan, check.

We raced to town hall meetings and bilateral (one-on-one) talks. We saw the president and first lady dance with young students in India. We witnessed the president take a walk down memory lane in Jakarta, where he spent four years as a child. And correspondents tried to explain complex economic issues at the G-20 meeting in Seoul and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Yokohama.

One commodity that's always missing, no matter when or where we travel overseas, is sleep.

When you are on the other side of the globe, it's daytime and you are expected to cover the day, jam-packed with events. At the end of our day -- when we would normally be tucking in for a good night's sleep -- domestic shows on the other side of the clock are just waking up and anxiously awaiting our live reports of the president's completed events. That means standing in front of the camera at midnight or 4 a.m.

Time zone changes plus sleep deprivation often turn a simple question, "What time is it in DC?" into an advanced math problem with no quick answer. I sometimes spot correspondents or producers counting out the hours on their fingers. Or I've been asked, "What day is it?"

Dan Lothian's question to Obama
First lady's Asia trip
Obama pushes trade at APEC summit
  • Barack Obama
  • Asia
  • Journalism

It's often said that "sleep is overrated." Well, on these trips there's a high premium on bedtime, but it's as elusive as that one little sheep that gets away as you're counting your way into a dream. Maybe the saying, "sleep deprivation is a form of torture," is more accurate.

I've walked you through this travel itinerary in order to set up what happens toward the end of every one of these international trips: Large puffy bags form under the eyes on beautiful TV faces. Tempers flare. People become grumpy. What was fine on day one is now outrageous on day nine.

"How many hours did you sleep last night?" replaces "hello" or "good morning." In a twisted way, the statement, "I only slept for one hour," becomes a badge of honor.

All this was not lost on newly appointed National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.

In a briefing to recap the president's trip Saturday, Donilon seemed to take pity on the haggard press corps.

"You all have really been working 24 hours a day and again, much appreciated," he said.

Unable to contain himself, he delivered the punch line: "I'm going to announce, I think we're going to add three or four stops."

As we all uttered what could best be described as a tired laugh, I looked down at my BlackBerry, and there was an e-mail from a friend whom I had earlier told about my "grueling overseas trip."

"Not grueling," he responded. "GLAMOROUS. You're traveling with the President."