Patrick Gavin Has Hours Left in His 500-Day Quest to Interview President Obama

We spoke to Gavin about his project.

Patrick Gavin spoke to us on the phone yesterday from outside the White House, where he was waiting to get in to President Obama’s final press conference, hoping to be called on for a question. This time around, he couldn’t even get in the room.

As the clock on the president’s time in office winds down, so too does the mission that has occupied Gavin, and his YouTube feed, since September 2015: to score an interview with President Obama. Along the way, he has documented his progress, or lack thereof, with 316 YouTube videos, all conveniently numbered.

As his collection of videos grew, the scope of Gavin’s original mission changed. The 500 videos he had planned to make at the outset became a more manageable, but still sizable 316. Had he gone for the 500 as planned, he says, “I think it probably would have killed me. It was a lot of late nights.” But the bigger difference for Gavin was a decision to expand the kind of content he’d create for the project, which allowed for both more playful and more serious content.

“In the beginning I thought it would be me just calling a bunch of people, trying to call up Oprah, and see if Oprah could give me advice, and it would be all these phone calls, and I would just badger people. But that’s not very interesting,” says Gavin, a former FishbowlDC editor and Politico reporter. But that initial round of advice-gathering had a purpose.

“Around the 100th video I kind of realized they were all basically saying the same thing, which was, you need to have an audience that the White House wants to reach. I thought it was who you know, or how hard you worked or how many times you asked or how interesting your questions were going to be, but it’s really as cold as simply having an audience the White House wants to reach.”

Gavin received an additional piece of advice, one familiar to many a journalist: specialize. “At some point Christi Parsons, then head of the [White House] Correspondents’ Association, said, ‘Well you need to find a topic and become an expert on it, so that if the White House wants to talk about the topic you’re an actual go-to person.'” It was Parsons, incidentally, who got the final question of yesterday’s presser.

Gavin chose government transparency as his area of expertise, not exactly one likely to endear him to the Obama administration, but a necessary and important topic that he explored in subsequent videos like #212 and #306. It was a natural extension of his most recent project, Nerd Prom, a documentary about the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. “A lot of what I’ve been trying to do is pull back the curtain on how things operate,” he says, referencing his doc, “try to tell people outside of Washington how Washington works, so there’s a level of transparency in that.”

It wasn’t a topic that an administration, any administration, would naturally be magnetized toward sitting down to discuss, but Gavin thought there was a Catch-22 element that could work. “If you really think you’re transparent, then be transparent about being transparent–have the courage to talk about it,” he said. “I actually thought that maybe that would give me an advantage because if you can’t talk about transparency, there’s something inherently un-transparent about that.”

Just as he had done in his documentary, Gavin’s efforts in the service of transparency extended to sunlighting the work of the press corps, posting videos of the process, from the text of his interview requests to showing what it takes to get into the room, and what happens when you’re there. “The president gives interviews all the time,” he says, “and you really don’t ever hear about how that process works because journalists and networks don’t want to reveal their tricks of the trade.”

The impending arrival of the Trump administration has put renewed attention on questions of press freedom and access, physical and philosophical.

“I think every administration just gets worse. Obama’s worse than Bush, Bush was worse than Clinton, Clinton was worse than Reagan. It’s a trend,” says Gavin, one to which he believes the White House Correspondents’ Association has not responded forcefully enough.

“It’s no surprise that every administration tries to take a little bit more away, and they do, and once you do you can’t take it back. Had Trump succeeded in putting the journalists across Pennsylvania Avenue,” he says, referring to the since scrapped plan to move the press corps out of the White House, “it’s hard to imagine the next president pulling them back in.”

In the grand tradition of no-access journalism, Gavin’s as-yet unsuccessful quest for access has given him a body of work that looks at what it’s like to be left in the dark, and what to do about it. “To the extent that I’ve been able to shed light on that, if that’s the legacy of what I’ve accomplished here I’ll be pretty proud of that, even if it means I don’t actually get the interview.”

And after all of his advice gathering, Gavin has some of his own. “I think any journalist depending on government officials to give them access, however noble and precedented, is going to end up not only being disappointed, but disappointing their readers, too,” he says.