A General Conference Diary

(An account of a young journalist’s experience at the Saturday morning session of General Conference.)

9:13 — I find Door 4 of the Tabernacle (the press entrance), show my press credentials, three forms of ID and a major credit card, and am at last admitted into the building and sent up to the south-west balcony, where they put journalists. The floor of the Tabernacle is crawling with Men in Suits with walkie-talkies, checking things out.

9:14 — The Mormon Youth Chorus has just finished rehearsing, and the director is giving last-minute instructions. “Once conference begins, we do NOT whisper to our friends!” he says. “And you must try with all your greatest effort to STAY AWAKE!” The choir giggles at this, but they soon learn the importance of the counsel.

9:25 — One of the Men in Suits vigorously shakes the railing next to the speakers’ podium. It’s pretty loose, but the issue is not addressed any further.

9:26 — I notice the secret staircase and door for the General Authorities to exit through. From the speaker’s standpoint, it is to the right, between the panelled wall the podium is part of and the last row of Seventy chairs.

9:29 — A young photojournalist emerges from the secret staircase after having apparently roamed the underground labyrinth. A Man in a Suit stops him, and I can see from the photographer’s hand gestures that he was hoping to get some pictures from the vantage point of where the Seventies sit. This is against the rules, and everyone in the press knows it, except, apparently, for this guy. The Man in a Suit motions for another Man in a Suit to come over and help, and the photographer makes the same gestures, only with more passion. He is finally escorted back whence he came. The growing crowd and many conference officials who are buzzing around are largely oblivious to the drama.

9:33 — I talk to the female reporter from Ricks. She’s nice, though not the slightest bit interested in anything I have to say, even when I point out the photographer/Man in Suit struggle unfolding below us.

9:35 — A Man in a Suit sprays the TelePrompTer glass with some kind of hi-tech Windex.

9:36 — The press kits arrive, including transcripts of all the talks that are to be given, so that we can read along with them in our books and avoid misquoting the General Authorities.

9:39 — The first Apostles to sit down in their seats are Elder L. Tom Perry and President Boyd K. Packer. A few Seventies have sneaked in unnoticed by this time. The remaining General Authorities, except for the First Presidency, arrive within the next 10 minutes.

9:54 — Presidents Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson and James E. Faust walk in, in that order. We discover that the lights had not been as bright as they could have been, because they suddenly become so. The audience, almost full now, stands up and becomes hushed. Even the unfeeling journalists pause for a moment from whatever it is they were pretending to do. The First Presidency shakes hands with all the Apostles, and President Hinckley motions for everyone to sit. They do and start talking again.

10:00 — General Conference starts, the only meeting in the church that I am aware of that starts on time. I am still concerned about that loose railing next to the podium. Those of us in the Tabernacle do not hear Lloyd Newell’s voice-over (“This is the 167th annual World General Conference…), but we do hear the organ music that the folks at home hear as background.

10:06 — The security guards (Men in Suits with walkie-talkies) do not close their eyes during the prayer. They do sing the hymns, though.

10:15 — When President Hinckley mentions that temples are to be built in New Mexico and Brazil, a buzz of excitement ripples through the congregation. The journalists are glad to have something cool to write about, and the pens move furiously, but we’re given a press release in a few minutes anyway.

10:25 — During the sustainings, President Faust leans over to President Hinckley and apparently cracks a joke, probably about the long list of names. Both laugh.

10:29-10:44 — President Packer speaks. Everytime he says a word that is different from our transcripts, the journalists make a note of it. He doesn’t stray very much.

10:45-10:50 — Elder Neal A. Maxwell, whose chemotherapy treatments for his leukemia have resulted in his being bald, speaks. It is a short talk, but full of emotion and spirit. Everyone who speaks or prays after him refers to it. He seems remarkably high-spirited and happy.

10:50-10:56 — The choir and congregation sing “Praise to the Man.” Elder Maxwell slips out unnoticed.

10:56 — Sister Patricia P. Pinegar, general president of the Primary, comes to the podium to give her talk. A low note on the organ is for some reason still playing. The organist tries frantically to make it stop. Sister Pinegar ignores it and begins speaking. Finally the organist turns off the whole organ. Her back is to me, but I’m sure she is blushing.

10:56-11:08 — Sister Pinegar gives her talk. We have apparently been given an early draft of it, because the way she delivers it bears only passing resemblance to the words we have in front of us. It necessitates actually taking notes, much to the consternation of the journalists who hadn’t planned on doing any real work today.

11:47-11:52 — The choir sings a lovely rendition of “Beautiful Savior.” President Hinckley turns around in his seat to watch the choir for some of the time, much to the photographers’ delight. He seems to be in deep contemplation.

11:54 — The closing prayer ends, and conference is over — six minutes early, which is something else that separates it from most other meetings in the church.

I really liked the idea behind this column, and I am pleased with the result. I was afraid that no one at The Universe would find the whole thing as fascinating as I did, but fortunately I had a few people backing me up. It turned out to be quite successful, and I wound up doing another one after the next three conferences.