Students cover Bush up close for eight years

For the average person, meeting the president of the United States is unfathomable, but journalists see it as the opportunity of a lifetime. So in theory, if the professional can’t do it, students shouldn’t even try—right? Wrong.

Over the past eight years, the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor’s students have used the opportunity to capture and pursue the latest news on the president. With Bush’s ranch just to the north, it would have been a travesty from a journalistic standpoint to ignore UMHB’s proximity and access to the chief.

Beginning in December 2000, The Bells staff actively pursued the coverage of former President George W. Bush. J. David Rowley, one of the first students to jump into action and begin capturing the president through a lens, says he spent his Christmas break trying to receive press credentials which would get him into the White House.

Photo by Sarah-Jane Sanders, The Bells archives

“I was working on getting press credentials for the (Texas) state legislature. Afterwards, I still had some time left, and I thought, well, the next major event is Bush (being) president. I thought, well, I have state credentials now, which is one of the requirements to get your national press credentials. So I purused it. I don’t know how many hours I spent on the phone, but I spent hours and hours,” Rowley said.

After receiving his national press credentials, left for Washington, D.C., which became a place he would often visit in the years to come.

During one of his trips, he attended a photography conference. After being assigned a photo essay project, he considered one about the White House, and hours of phone calls later, he was in. He spent the next week in the White House with the national media.

Rowley said he’s proud he has captured nearly every type of picture one can get in the White House, including the Oval Office. He said he came face-to-face with the president, became known by the press corps and even snapped the only departure picture of Bush on one occasion.

From then on, he covered the Bushes whenever possible, including all arrivals and departures to and from Crawford, dedications and local events.

His experience proves that a pursuit can be successful.

Photo by J. David Rowely, The Bells archives

Rowley said, “What I tell people is the worst thing anyone will tell you as a journalist is no. But don’t give up even on no because for every one person who tells you no, there’s one person to tell you yes. That’s how I ended up in D.C. because I found the one person who would say yes.”

He said while he pursued coverage for the opportunities, he also did so to leave a legacy for UMHB students. He wanted those who would follow him to know such things can be done.

Rowley did just that. With the help of The Bells adviser, numerous UMHB journalists had the opportunity to cover several presidential events.

The 2004-06 editor-in-chief of The Bells, Natalie Kaspar, said, “I received many opportunities to cover the activities surrounding George W. Bush’s presidency while working for The Bells under the advising of Vicky Kendig. A few of those experiences include gaining White House press credentials; attending a presidential summit between Bush, former President Vicente Fox of Mexico and former Prime Minister Paul Martin of Canada at Baylor; and writing a series of stories on how Bush’s presidency and the location of his ranch affected the nearby town of Crawford, Texas.”

For The Bells staff, the list goes on. Their exposure to media protocol, how to get the scoop and just getting experience were invaluable to their understanding of real journalism.

Photo by J. David Rowely, The Bells archives

“Each experience provided opportunities to be professional and grow in my journalism skills. I had to step up to the challenges, face and get over basic fears and interview well-known people. It was a blast,” Kaspar said.

She said thinking back on her times while covering the president, she can hardly believe the reality of her accomplishments.

“I’m so thankful for the opportunities I had to be involved in reporting on this part of our country’s presidential history,” Kaspar said.  “It was tough at times and required sacrifice and hard work, but it was more than worth it. I’m grateful for the way Kendig challenged me and pushed me to do my best. I look back on what I’ve been able to do and shake my head, knowing it’s all been real.”

Sarah-Jane Sanders, the 2006-07 editor-in-chief of The Bells, shares Kaspar’s humble view toward the ability to cover presidential events while attending a small Baptist university.

She, too, attended the Baylor summit with the North American leaders and said going to the event made her feel privileged to be in a room full of reporters from around the world.

Sanders said, “In the press conference, I was less than 30 feet away from the three most powerful men in North America. That was incredible in itself.”

After getting over her initial astonishment, she said she refocused and began to listen to the leaders speak. Sanders said former President Bush impressed her as he spoke about America’s intercontinental relationship with Mexico and Canada, and about the importance of continued teamwork to promote prosperity and peace in North America.

“It was amazing to hear the details of the trilateral partnership unfold as each dignitary addressed his own country and promised resolution for some of the major pain points in the current intercontinental agreements. I left the meeting with a great respect for President Bush and the policies he was actively pursuing with our neighboring countries,” she said.

Another aspect of covering the president included happenings at Crawford, Texas.

“Crawford interviews were always interesting,” Sanders said. “In the same day, I talked to laid back country folk, and then across town, I interviewed off-the-wall hippie types from all over the nation who joined Cindy Sheehan’s (anti-war) crusade. There was never a dull moment.”

Sanders said her experience covering Bush has helped prepare her to enter the news media where she hopes to cover stories like these all the time, and the ability of UMHB students to cover such newsworthy once-in-a-lifetime stories speaks volumes about the quality of the journalism program.

“We didn’t just write about national news. We experienced it,” she said. “We interviewed the newsmakers, wrote on tight deadlines and learned to craft stories of national importance with an angle for our audience, UMHB students. That real-life experience is what makes a student a journalist.”

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