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A minute in the Oval Office with the president and the pope

President Barack Obama talks with Pope Francis in

President Barack Obama talks with Pope Francis in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. Credit: AP / Tony Gentile

WASHINGTON -- The action was fast and furious as a group of journalists and photographers was allowed into the Rose Garden and then for a brief moment into the Oval Office to experience firsthand the historic encounter of Pope Francis and President Barack Obama.

The day started when a few credentialed journalists from the Vatican press corps lined up outside their hotel around 7 a.m. and waited while the Secret Service checked bags. Then it was a short bus ride to the White House before stepping through the security gates there.

There was still time to kill before the 9 a.m. welcoming ceremony, so we were ushered into the White House briefing room -- a surprisingly small place.

Some of the foreign journalists in the group went up to the lectern the White House spokesman uses to address the press and -- posing as if they were him -- had their pictures taken as souvenirs.

Finally, the group went outside to the South Lawn and waited for the pope and the president to arrive.

As the welcoming ceremony ended, the group was moved over to the Rose Garden. It was also a surprisingly small area, maybe 30 yards long and 15 wide. Rose bushes and low hedges surrounded it. To one side was a door leading to the Oval Office.

Photographers lined up in a row on the grass to try to get the best angle when the two leaders came out of the White House. As we waited, press aides told us that after Francis and Obama took a short stroll and walked into the Oval Office, we should line up single file under the portico to follow them in. They said we shouldn't leave anything on the grass, and we shouldn't bring any bags into Oval Office.

Finally, the moment came and the pope and the president emerged. They walked slowly along the colonnade, the president gesturing with his arms as he spoke to the pope. There were some laughs and smiles -- they seemed to be getting along nicely.

The walk ended, they slipped into the Oval Office -- and then pandemonium broke out among the press corps. They dashed for the portico, as press aides yelled for everyone to line up single file as told. It didn't work. Some tried, but others didn't and before you knew it there was a mad rush to be first to get into the iconic office.

Immediately the pope and Obama were surrounded by a crush of cameras. You had to run around quickly to find an opening or semi-opening to shoot a photo.

The president and the pope were seated in two cushioned arm chairs in front of a fire place. Again, the room seemed amazingly small for being the famous Oval Office. A portrait of Lincoln hung on a wall of yellow and white striped wallpaper.

The atmosphere was frenzied, since we knew the time would be short. Amid the cameras snapping, someone shouted a question, but Obama answered with a joke, "I notice all of you are much better behaved than usual."

Then before you knew it, the president dropped the magic words: "Thank you everybody."

That sent press aides into a flurry of their own thank yous.

One started saying: "Thanks guys. OK thank you. We're done. Thanks. Thank you. Thanks guys. OK we're good, we're done."

And then they started gently but firmly pushing the journalists out of the office.

The Oval Office photo op was over. It had lasted perhaps a minute. Press aides said as we walked off the White House grounds that we were fairly lucky -- that was longer than usual.

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