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Front Row at the White House - Q & A with David Alexander

January 4, 2010

David Alexander, a 1979 graduate of OBU, has traveled the globe as a journalist with United Press International and, more recently, with Reuters.

Q. Of all your assignments, what has been the most interesting to you?

A. The overseas assignments have been the most interesting because there is always a lot to learn when you're going to be stationed in a place for months or years. Israel, Palestine and India are tremendously rich in history and culture, and their pasts are deeply interwoven with that of Britain. So it was a gift to be able to live in all of these places and be able to do things like visit the Church of the Nativity on Christmas, see the Dome of the Rock, hear the muezzin's call to prayer echo over Jerusalem every day, and see places like Petra, the Taj Mahal, the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the Dhamekh Stupa at Sarnath, the temples at Khajuraho, the desert town of Jaisalmer and the houseboats on Lake Dal in Kashmir.

Q. What have been the most dangerous assignments?

A. I've covered several different conflict zones, and they are always dangerous to a certain extent. I couldn't say which was the most dangerous. They all had their moments.

I was aboard the USS Tripoli when it struck a mine during the 1991 Gulf War. It tore a 17-foot hole in the hull. It happened before dawn, and the blast was powerful enough that we would have been thrown out of our racks several levels above had it not been for the restraints around the bed to prevent that from happening.

The Tripoli is an amphibious assault ship, which is a sort of small carrier for helicopters. It was the lead vessel in the largest mine-sweeping operation since the Korean War. After the explosion, we were ordered to the hangar deck, which had big bay doors opening out over the Gulf. The ship had gone dead in the water and had deployed some of its helicopters for defense and to search for other mines. As the sun came up we could see the helicopters dropping smoke flares on mines around our ship. We were surrounded by plumes of smoke.

I was in Dhahran during the early days of the air campaign, when Scud missiles were regularly falling on the area. We wouldn't generally know about it until there were air warning sirens and the sound of Patriot missile explosions. We became a bit blasé about the danger until one night a Scud fell on a building housing a transport unit, killing 28 service members.

Any time you're reporting on tensions and conflict you can suddenly find yourself in a dangerous situation. When Chinese leader Li Peng visited New Delhi in the early '90s, Tibetan Buddhists at a refugee camp there held a demonstration. I went over to see what they had to say about the visit. It was maybe a couple dozen people milling about demonstrating, and they were being watched by half a dozen or so Indian security forces. It seemed a lazy affair until all of a sudden someone hurled a big cinder block into the dirt road where everyone was mingling about. The thing had barely come to a stop when you heard the pop, pop, pop of the security troops firing off tear gas canisters at almost point blank range. And then people were running in all directions trying to get away from the smoke.

I've followed Israeli security forces as they chased Palestinian stone-throwers at a refugee camp in the West Bank, and Indian security forces as they made house-to-house searches after coming under fire in Kashmir. I've moved around under curfew in Gaza and Kashmir when tensions were very high. And I've covered a huge funeral in Gaza that included stone-throwing and warning shots but finally ended peacefully.

I happened to be visiting the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem in October 1991 when I began to hear sustained gunfire. When it continued to go on and on, I left the museum and went across into the Old City to try to get a sense of what was happening. Palestinians were running away from the Temple Mount, site of Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. I saw men run by carrying a terribly bloodied Palestinian woman in traditional clothing. As I got closer people started leaning out of their windows warning me to go the other way. So I finally turned and went around the area of the fighting. More than 20 Palestinians were killed and over 100 wounded.

My wife, Ann, was on the Docklands Light Rail just a couple stops away when a huge IRA bomb shredded several buildings on the Isle of Dogs in east London in 1996. You could see the worst-hit building across the waterway from just outside the doorway of our home.

Q. What have been the strangest assignments?

A. Truthfully, I think we believe things are strange when we're not accustomed to them. So when we start moving in different cultures, there are many things that may initially strike us as strange but seem more normal once we've gotten used to the idea.

I haven't really thought of any of my assignments as strange. Horrific sometimes, but not strange. Some assignments have had very strange moments, though.

Once in Jerusalem I followed a group of Israeli policemen as they tried to prevent a Jewish group from going up to the Temple Mount. The members of the group kept flanking the police in the warren of alleyways in the Old City, but the police kept maneuvering to block them. At one point things became particularly tense along one of the main thoroughfares in the Old City, with the police lined shoulder to shoulder blocking the cobblestone walkway and members of the Jewish group on the other, their noses just a couple feet apart and shouting loudly at each other. At that moment along came a group of Christian pilgrims carrying an enormous wooden crucifix. Oblivious to the confrontation in front of them, they bumped once, twice into the police line, which finally parted as the bemused police moved aside. The top police officer then scolded the members of the Jewish group for making a scene in front of the tourists, and the situation sort of defused.

Once the leaders of the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] in India decided to carry out a public display to demonstrate that the disputed territory of Kashmir would always remain a part of India. They decided to march from the southern tip of the country all the way to Kashmir in the north and raise the Indian flag in the city of Srinagar, where a separatist conflict was in full swing. As they conducted the march, tensions rose higher and higher in Kashmir. I was part of a group of journalists that flew to Srinagar to cover their arrival. The whole Muslim area of Kashmir was under curfew. Authorities were dispatched to consult with the BJP members as they drew closer. The politicians were convinced to abandon their original plan and be flown to Srinagar because travel by land would be too dangerous. So on the appointed day, a small group of BJP members were flown to the airport and driven in a motorcade through empty streets to the main square. As we headed to the plaza from our hotel, Kashmiri separatists fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the main square. But security was so tight that was the only incident. The Indian military had put up a flagpole with an Indian flag on it so all the BJP members would have to do was pull a string to unfurl it. Instead, they insisted on erecting their own pole with a special flag given to them by the mother of a soldier slain in Kashmir. They raised their flag on their pole. It stood for about 10 seconds before toppling on their heads. So they were forced to pull the string on the pole erected by the Indian soldiers. Then they were raced through empty streets back to the airport and flown out of Kashmir.

I covered a UFO convention in England once. I reported on an Indian man who lost his livelihood when authorities confiscated his dancing bear at the urging of environmentalists. And I did a story on a research institute in India that was trying to breed the most effective camel for the 21st century. India is a county that has put satellites into space but the reality is that a sizable segment of the population will rely on camels for transport and hauling loads well into this century.

Q. Please tell us more about reporting on the president and national Cabinet members. What is it like to see firsthand the news making national headlines - and to be the one informing the American public and the world about such news?

A. Reporting on the president is very much a team effort. The same is true with top cabinet members. Often the person traveling with the president has little or no time to write. If the schedule is tight, the traveling reporters have to be at the motorcade ahead of the president or cabinet member or get left behind. So colleagues elsewhere often monitor the speeches and other events and write the stories for the traveling correspondent. The traveling correspondent passes along details that are not available except to those up close or with the president. If you're sitting listening to the president's speech, by the time he's finished, the story's generally already done - or is in a second or third draft.

I got my first taste of covering U.S. leaders while I was working overseas - James Baker, Dick Cheney and others when they came through Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War and Dan Quayle when he came to India for Rajiv Gandhi's funeral. While in London for UPI, I traveled to Northern Ireland with the White House press covering Bill Clinton. I stayed in the press filing center and wrote stories for Helen Thomas as she moved about with the president.

I've had the opportunity to cover the White House over the past couple of years. I was part time at the White House during the last nine months of the Bush administration and full time during the first six months of the Obama administration. Reuters is one of the news organizations that is in the traveling pool that goes everywhere with the president. We usually have a reporter and photographer on Air Force One and often have more people on press charter flights that accompany the entourage. On the ground, the small traveling pool rides in the president's motorcades.

I went to the APEC summit in Lima last year with [President] Bush and was with [President] Obama for the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, his speech to the Islamic world in Cairo, and the visits to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany and the D-Day beaches in Normandy . I've done a bunch of U.S. trips with the two presidents as well.

I traveled with Condoleezza Rice when she engaged in diplomatic efforts following the outbreak of fighting in Georgia last year. I'm reporting on the State Department for the next couple of months and will be traveling with Hillary Clinton from time to time. I reported on her visit last week to Germany for the 20th anniversary of the fall the Berlin Wall, to Singapore for the APEC ministerial and to the Philippines.

It's a very pressure-filled job. Everybody wants to be first with the news. Timings are tracked and measured down to the second. But it is fascinating to have a chance to see the personalities up close. Especially at the White House you are surrounded by reminders of the country's history, and so you're always aware of the importance of what is happening around you.

Q. How did attending OBU help prepare you for work engaging a diverse world?

A: OBU had a good liberal arts program and some outstanding professors when I was there. I felt encouraged to pursue my interests, and I did. I majored in philosophy and took lots of classes in history, economics, political science, art and math. And I took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves. I worked as a photographer for the school, reported for the school newspaper and ran for student government offices. In the end I spent five years at OBU and amassed way more credit hours than I needed to graduate. It was a nurturing environment, and I enjoyed the experience.