Slow Jam the Secret Service method for me.
April 26, 2012 8:14 AM   Subscribe

Can the president of the U.S. make a truly surprise appearance?

Barack Obama's appearance on Jimmy Fallon's show earlier this week got me wondering. Was he advertised as a guest for that episode? And if not, wouldn't there be tons of extra security and screening as audience members arrived that would tip people off?

I can't get google to tell me much about security for the event, given that the topic of "security" came up on the episode when they talked about the Secret Service in Cartagena scandal. Several websites claim that this was a "surprise appearance" on the show. Would the audience members have noticed anything different, or could it really be a complete surprise when the president walks out on stage?

In addition to this specific appearance, I'm interested in the more general question of how or whether the president is able to make a surprise appearance anywhere. Can they do anything to make his entourage and security unobtrusive, or does it usually turn out as "Surprise! The president is going to be here in 2 hours after we finish inspecting the place and patting down every person within 1000 yards!"?
posted by vytae to Law & Government (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

Best answer: It wasn't a surprise appearance--it was announced a few days beforehand here in NC, and students got tickets in advance as well, knowing he would be the guest.
posted by leesh at 8:18 AM on April 26, 2012

The answer is, yes.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 8:23 AM on April 26, 2012

The audience probably didn't know *when* he was going to come out, like in the middle of the slow jam skit, which is why they seemed/sounded surprised.
posted by sweetkid at 8:23 AM on April 26, 2012

Response by poster: it was announced a few days beforehand here in NC

Ah, that is good to know. For some reason I couldn't get this out of google, and trying to search for whether it was a surprise just pulls up websites claiming that it was. Thanks.

Still interested in the general question of how an actual surprise appearance could be pulled off.

StupidsexyFlanders, I really liked the info info in that article about how the visit was kept hush-hush. I imagine the actual site prep is easier on a military base compared to, say, a school or TV studio, since they're used to having guys in uniform keeping things secure.

Has the POTUS ever made a surprise appearance in a civilian area?
posted by vytae at 8:27 AM on April 26, 2012

In this case, it was advertised at least a day in advance, and I'm pretty sure for media appearances it has to be done that way, but they don't say that he's coming out at exactly 9:48am and will be speaking and/or slow-jamming the news for no more than 10 minutes.

In terms of making a non-media visit, which Obama seems to do all the time (and I find endearing, personally), it's kind of like your "Surprise!" scenario. So when he stops off at Ray's Hellburger in Arlington, or a random college bar in Boulder, etc., the Secret Service comes in, tells the management, inspects the place (pat-downs are not usually included IIRC), and usually doesn't let anybody in who's not already there. Then POTUS (and/or FLOTUS, VPOTUS, Sasha and Malia) come on in, gladhand, maybe play with a toy or ask what the special is, and enjoy themselves.
posted by zombieflanders at 8:28 AM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: On a Spring day in 1970, just five days after National Guard troops opened fire on anti-war demonstrators at Kent State University, a restless president awoke in the pre-dawn hours, strolled to the Lincoln sitting room, and sat down to listen to some music.

From the window, he could see student protesters gathering on the grounds of the Washington Monument.

A White House attendant asked the president if he would like coffee or hot chocolate. He declined.

What happened next is the stuff of political legend.

President Richard M. Nixon, the strategic, calculating -- and some say paranoid -- architect of his own rise and fall, took an uncharacteristic gamble. He asked his attendant if he had ever seen the Lincoln Memorial at night, then led a small entourage on an unplanned visit to the Lincoln Memorial, where he talked to young anti-war protesters.

"I have never seen the Secret Service quite so petrified with apprehension," Nixon said a few days later. "I insisted however no press be informed and that nobody in our office be informed."
posted by jingzuo at 8:31 AM on April 26, 2012 [11 favorites]

In this case, it was advertised at least a day in advance, and I'm pretty sure for media appearances it has to be done that way, but they don't say that he's coming out at exactly 9:48am and will be speaking and/or slow-jamming the news for no more than 10 minutes.

Jay Leno actually spoke to this in an interview; he said that when he had the president on, a couple days beforehand the office was invaded by "guys in black suits" who had dossiers on everyone in the studio. They walked around getting everyone's name, and then they'd check that person's name against a lengthy file: "Let's see, what's your name? Sid Blankston....okay, Sid, don't come in to work that day." If Sid asked why, or what info they had on him, they'd just glare and repeat, "...don't come to work that day."

So there's enough fuss that I"m sure some news gets out somehow.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:33 AM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

What a timely question! Apparently Obama just made a surprise visit to a bar in Boulder, CO. The story gives details of the security arrangements, etc.
posted by saladin at 8:50 AM on April 26, 2012

Best answer: Here's a link to a visit Obama made to a Five Guys back in 2009. It seems pretty spontaneous, but when he's told he needs to "wait for the press" I bet the Secret Service scrambled inside to do a check.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:58 AM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

That Nixon appearance was truly a surprise appearance. He just took off in the middle of the night. Even the Secret Service didn't know and an emergency message, using his code name "Searchlight" was broadcast over their radios: "Searchlight is on the Lawn." It can and does happen.

Still waiting for Obama to show up at my office. My office is only 8 blocks away.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:22 AM on April 26, 2012

Best answer: It can happen. It happened for my wife a couple of weeks ago when she was at a conference.

Bill Clinton was in the same hotel, and when he heard that my wife's organization was presenting on another floor, he asked if he could give an impromptu speech.

Secret Service agents quietly came into the room, and then an announcement was made: "Ladies and gentlemen, we're about to have a special guest. If you need to leave the room, you have to leave now, but you won't be able to leave once our guest arrives, and you won't be able to return until our guest leaves the room."

Then Bill Clinton came in and just blew everyone away with a speech he pulled out of his head. No preparation, no notes, nada. She said it was very impressive.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:29 AM on April 26, 2012 [12 favorites]

Sasha and Malia once came into my gelato shop. They were accompanied by one Secret Service guy and a "nanny" in her early twenties, or whatever the term is. They did not notify the management (me) ahead of time, and the store was very busy.
posted by Night_owl at 9:48 AM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Years ago, about a week or two after Clinton's inauguration, Chelsea Clinton came with a couple friends to see a movie at the theater I was working at (I'm a projectionist) --- the whole things was very low key, and as far as I could see there was no visible pre-visit security check. Of course, I imagine if it was POTUS or the first lady there would have been more of a fuss, plus that was well before 9-11.
posted by easily confused at 12:34 PM on April 26, 2012

Best answer: An actual surprise (like the Nixon thing) is easier to do, because most threats to the presidential safety are somewhat planned. IE, nutjob hears that the Pres is going to be in town, and concocts a plan. I suspect that there aren't many nutjobs packing heat just waiting for the day the president comes into their bowling alley.

The hardest security, at least as I understand it, is for the events that are planned and public well in advance. It gives bad guys plenty of time to figure stuff out.

(I love that Nixon story. Can you imagine what must have been running through those kids' minds when a sweatty, insomniac Nixon shows up in the middle of the night to shoot the shit?)
posted by gjc at 1:26 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Speaking of Nixon, he did make a surprise flight on a commercial airliner, and the FAA had almost no advanced notice.
posted by General Malaise at 1:36 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are all great stories, and very illuminating. Thanks, you guys. Would love to hear more anecdotes if anybody has 'em.
posted by vytae at 2:46 PM on April 26, 2012

Here's another incident my wife had with the Secret Service, but it wasn't as impromptu as it was a couple of weeks ago. They had a little more notice.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:41 PM on April 26, 2012

The Obamas vacation to Oahu every Christmas - as do I (my mom lives in Honolulu). The whole island goes into "Obama watch" mode. My understanding is that the schedule is pretty well set by the family/secret service, because they seem to always hit the same spots, but individual dates/times are hidden from the public. This means that happening to be at the same tourist destination is a real treat - people take pictures and send them into the news.

We went to Morimoto one night for dinner this past Christmas and heard that we'd missed the Obamas by one day. Apparently (according to our waiter) the visit had been cleared 24 hours in advance by secret service who came in and scouted out the place. On the night of, the secret service were in place at every entrance/exit shortly before the POTUS and FLOTUS came in (not a huge crew - 5 to 10 visible agents, who acted pretty low key all things consider) and all the regular guests had to come in through a metal detector. The first family and guests were seated at an out of the way table, but the rest of the restaurant operated as usual. Apparently Morimoto offered to close the restaurant down for them, but they declined.

It seems like they (the first family and their protectors) try to operate with as much freedom as possible, while maintaining safety and hitting all the best spots and generally trying not to be too disruptive. Where possible, they'll use military base beaches (yes, there are beautiful ones) or attend tourist attractions on their closed days so that they can maintain security but not get in the way or be too much of a spectacle.

Additionally, the President is known to work out on the Marine Corps base at 6:30 am. Anyone in the military can go and just be working out and have the opportunity to meet him. But things are obviously a lot more secure for him there.
posted by paddingtonb at 10:19 PM on April 26, 2012

Surprise visits are endearing, but they are a hassle if you're in the 'hood.
posted by jgirl at 8:53 AM on April 27, 2012

Since the thread is still open, thought I'd throw in President Obama's "surprise" visit to Afghanistan – BuzzFeed has an interesting story on how the White House tried to keep it secret as long as possible, despite someone in Afghanistan tweeting his arrival.
posted by General Malaise at 8:55 AM on May 2, 2012

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