It's barely 9:30 a.m., and most of the government and those who care about it in Washington are comfortably ensconced in air-conditioned offices. But on this particularly sweaty Tuesday morning in August, I find myself on the edge of a dusty field in Bowling Green, Va., its burnt-summer grasses trampled by the Boy Scouts of America. Hundreds of Scouts. No, thousands of them, all gathered at their National Jamboree.
In front of me is a huge stage and the grandest American flag to be found in Virginia--a land, to be sure, of grand flags. Behind me are bursting dozens of fireworks, very loud but barely visible against the haze of a shimmering morning sky. And through six towering banks of loudspeakers comes the overly amplified voice of the excited emcee: "All right! For your listening pleasure, straight from Atlanta, Ga.--the U.S. Army Ground Forces Rock Baaaaand!"
Welcome, dear reader, to the refined, exciting, glamorous--in short, jet-set--world of White House travel.
What does the White House have to do with a dusty field in Bowling Green, Va.? George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President of the United States and my passport to global jaunts as a White House correspondent, has chosen to speak to the Boy Scouts, and they have chosen to meet in the woods and meadows of Ft. A. P. Hill, an old Army camp about 70 miles south of the White House. And wherever George Bush goes, the White House press corps is generally nearby. In this case, grumpily nearby, but also amused.
More difficult, perhaps, is keeping track of all the high school gymnasiums, convention centers and hotel ballrooms, let alone dusty fields, to which this passport already has taken me.
During the first eight months of 1989, the President's penchant for speeches, diplomatic meetings, and--thank goodness--vacations, has taken me to central Virginia, yes, but also to Tokyo, Beijing, and a military airport on the outskirts of Seoul. To a convention of recreational-vehicle owners in Richmond, Va., and to Warsaw, Budapest, Paris and The Hague. To the free world's largest naval base, in Norfolk, Va., and to the home of some of its best kielbasa, Hamtramck, Mich. To New York City, Houston and Colorado Springs. To Union, N.J., and back to New York. To Anchorage in February and to College Station, Tex., and Starkville, Miss. as spring edged into summer. To Lexington, Ky., on prom night, when high school seniors in gowns and tuxedos giggled their way up and down a Hyatt Regency throughout a sleepless Saturday night and Sunday morning. To Kennebunkport, Me., and back to Kennebunkport.
And that's just the half of it, since there are two of us covering the White House for The Times and sharing the workload--and the travel.
The trip to Bowling Green, Va., was simple: About 100 reporters, television camera crews, photographers, lighting technicians, television and radio producers, White House staff members and stenographers boarded three Gold Line tour buses at the northwest gate of the White House at about 7:30 a.m. and headed south on Interstate 95. Two hours later, they found themselves, along with their 2,000 to 2,500 pounds of equipment, at the Jamboree, surrounded by 35,000 Scouts and their leaders who were anxiously awaiting the Marine Corps helicopter carrying the President from Washington. And six hours later, having retraced their route on the buses, they were back in Washington--just in time for a late lunch at the desk and a full afternoon in the office. Jet-set? Hah!
For the past 12 1/2 years, since the White House days of Jimmy Carter, I have been seeing the world. From the back of Air Force One and from the front of chartered jetliners, I've had a bird's-eye view, at a speed approaching Mach 1. From the windows of Gold Line buses, Greyhounds, or their jam-packed, bone-jarring relatives spewing diesel fumes across the Third World, I've glimpsed life in the cities, suburbs and occasionally the farms of the United States, Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Which is to say, I've seen very little.
Traveling with the White House is unlike any other mode of transit. It is to venture into a traveler's never-never land.
Baggage? Never worry about it. As long as I make those 5 a.m. baggage calls, White House baggage handlers will get it to the next city and see that it is delivered to my hotel room. And--knock on wood!--they haven't lost it yet. Crowded airports? Never see them. Motorcades come to a halt at the steps of the waiting airplane. Customs agents? Never encounter them. Surly flight attendants? Never come across them, either. Attendants that I've encountered manage to perform all the work of cabin crews on commercial flights despite roving bands of reporters crowding the aisles.
In short, a privileged existence--some would say spoiled--in which many of the travails of other travelers have been dispatched. But so have many of their pleasures.
During President Reagan's eight years in office, he spent more than a year, cumulatively, in California, maintaining a travel schedule that allowed me to develop a fondness for breakfast at Tutti's, a delightful delicatessen and restaurant in Montecito. When Reagan went to China in 1984, he took a week getting there, allowing me a leisurely stop at the Kahala Hilton in Honolulu. But such pleasures are rare. More typical was the pace of President Bush's first overseas trip this year, when he visited Japan, China and South Korea in February: out and back in six days, with only four nights spent in hotels.
For reporters covering a White House trip, traveling with the President doesn't mean actually traveling with him aboard Air Force One. Only an 11-person press "pool" actually accompanies the President aboard the airplane, the military version of a Boeing 707 that is his primary aircraft--although any Air Force plane on which the President flies is known as Air Force One while he is aboard. Five or six reporters, two photographers and a three-person television crew make up the pool, with the assignments to the pool made on a rotating, alphabetical basis. The pool is on board to report to its 70 or so colleagues flying on a chartered jetliner what takes place aboard the presidential aircraft on each leg of a trip. (The 707, delivered in 1972, is due to be replaced later this year, about one year behind schedule, by an extended-range Boeing 747).
board Air Force One, reporters are assigned seats in the rear cabin, next to the galley. Space is cramped, and the work table quickly becomes cluttered with food trays, laptop computers, notebooks, tape recorders and newspapers.
Aboard the press plane--a Boeing 727 for domestic flights, a 747 for international flights to accommodate the 250 or so news people who accompany the President overseas-- accommodations also are cramped. But there are some ameliorating factors: first-class food, even on 40-minute flights; good wines, and on the overseas flights as many movies as there is time to show.
Prefer a low calorie meal? It's probably available. Vegetarian? No problem. Would you rather have dry cereal, banana and yogurt for breakfast instead of steak and eggs? That's no difficulty, either. Regional specialties are not overlooked. After a presidential visit to Kansas City, the pungent aroma of Arthur Bryant's barbecue filled the cabin.
The logistics of chartering the airplanes, as well as arranging for buses to transport the reporters once on the ground, falls to the White House Transportation Office. So, too, does the job of making sure that a press room with telephones is set up in each city, that rental cars are available and that hotel rooms are booked.
For a decade, nearly all of the White House charter business has gone to Pan American Airways, based on the availability of its aircraft. The Transportation Office, run by career government employees, bills the news organizations represented aboard on a pro-rated basis. The seats don't come cheaply for the paying customers. A charter cost of, say, $40,000 for a one-day, one-stop trip out of Washington, divided by 70 passengers, means a per-seat cost of about $571. The more passengers picking up the tab, the lower the cost. By contrast, of course, when a particular presidential trip attracts only a handful of news organizations, costs can zoom.
It is aboard the charter that much of a newspaper reporter's work gets done on a presidential trip. With two reporters sharing three seats, there is little room for notebooks, tape recorders, texts of presidential speeches, pool reports and background files, let alone meal trays and the portable, battery-powered computers that provide vital links to newsrooms on the ground. The White House schedule rarely includes enough time on the ground to write a story after a presidential speech--say, at a commencement at Texas A&M; or a political fund-raiser in Miami--and also keep up with the President as he flies on to another city, or back to Washington.
It is aboard the charter that reporters occasionally get some time to chat informally with White House staff members.
But perhaps no scene offers a better picture of life aboard the press plane than this one: It involves a flight across the South that took place well into the Reagan Administration. By that time reporters had heard once a month--if not once a week--the President's dramatic story about a World War II bomber that came under intense fire, the plane's heroic pilot and a trapped crewman. By Reagan's account, as the flier was about to bail out of his doomed bomber, he discovered an injured crewman who was trapped in the aircraft and unable to escape. "It's OK, son, we'll ride this one down together," says the pilot, giving his life to comfort a terrified and doomed companion.
Cut to the 727, tossed across the sky--up, down, and sideways, seemingly all at once. Reporters are scrambling back to their seats, grabbing for seat belts as a sudden storm bounces them about .
But up from the bedlam rises ABC's Sam Donaldson, groping his way to the front of the cabin and the irresistible microphone attached to the airplane's public-address system.
"It's OK, son," he says, his booming voice ringing from dozens of speakers throughout the cabin, "We'll ride this one down together."
DR, DAVE ARKLE