August 22nd, 2013
06:14 AM ET

Barack Obama: A Peek Behind the Scenes of an Interview With the President

By Chris Cuomo and John Griffin, CNN

Syracuse, New York – The crowd gathering outside Henninger High School in Syracuse, New York, is buzzing, but polite. Young men dressed in dark suits and bright bow ties, PTA mothers, band members wearing T-shirts with "GRADUATE" emblazoned across the back, even the occasional anti-fracking or anti-Keystone XL pipeline protestor. All have gathered for this moment.

Actually, it's a moment about five hours from now, when President Barack Obama is set to take the stage here, to unveil his plan to make college more affordable. According to the White House, the cost of college has ballooned some 250% in 30 years, while Americans' salaries have gone up just 16%. Obama's going on a two-state tour to discuss his ideas for alleviating that disparity that, economists say, is robbing young Americans of a future free of debt, and the nation as a whole of its potential. For now, though, it's 1:30 in the afternoon, 90 degrees and, while the crowd jockeys for the best position in the line and the magnetometers are being warmed up, dark clouds develop on the horizon.

That storm would later take down my live shot with Jake Tapper and his show, "The Lead." Certain types of satellite truck signals, being of a certain wavelength, are actually too "big" to penetrate a sky full of clouds. We call this "rain fade," and my live hit is kaput before I've finished answering the first question.

The storm that would unload on us next nearly rips our tent out of the ground, and douses us with rain. I'm here and doing live shots for one reason: later this evening, after the president's speech, I will interview him exclusively on a wide array of topics: his college affordability initiative, to be sure, but also Syria, Egypt, NSA spying, even the president's relationships with his growing daughters, and the family dog.

Obama Cuomo interview behind the scenes Obama Cuomo interview Chris Cuomo with camera man

PHOTO CREDIT:  John Griffin / CNN @jgriffnyc

Dodging back into Henninger High School to avoid the rain, I'm impressed by just how dramatically this sprawling Syracuse institution has transformed from school to citadel. The advance team escorting us around the space has been here for a week. Sensitive areas the president will pass through are draped in thick, dark velvet so no one can track his movements through the school. Exterior-facing glass has also been blacked out, covered in a thick paper to protect the president from, if not a bullet, then from a shooter's ability to aim it. Everyone is carefully segregated: the bystanders from the ticketed crowd for the address, the ticketed crowd from the media, the media from the president's teams, etc.  And since the school has had its final "sweep," wherever we move within it, we must be "handled," escorted from place to place. Around every corner, an agent stands guard, listening to his earpiece or talking in his sleeve. If it all feels like a movie, that's more a commentary on Hollywood paying attention to the details than the agents being clichéd.

Speaking of clichés, the room that has been selected for our interview is the school's band room, and it is every bit what you would expect: xylophones poke out of lockers, an upright piano sits, well-worn, in the corner, musical staffs are pre-drawn on the blackboards and inspirational messages are pinned to the walls. It looks, and feels, pretty much precisely like the set of "Glee," a metaphor which takes on even more depth after our crew finishes lighting it and pointing cameras at it. In the end, the shot is beautiful.

And, after that, we wait, we make notes, we discuss, and we wait. Another live hit for the "Situation Room" follows, and this time, it goes off without a hitch. The weather has mostly cleared. We watch the president's address where his plan, and his subtle swipes at congress for its inaction, electrify the crowd. And then back to waiting. As the time of our interview gets closer, we make final adjustments, check the shots, check the audio, check our gear. We have to be ready the moment the president sits down.

The president is coming. Lights off, phones on vibrate. Here we go.