Friday, March 21, 2008

My first time on Air Force One

I rose at five o’clock one morning in January of 2004, grabbed my travel bag, and caught a cab to work, where I boarded a shuttle to Andrews Air Force Base.

Shots of the President and First Lady arriving at, or departing, the White House aboard the presidential helicopter make great footage on the evening news, but seats aboard the chopper are the hottest ticket in town. Chris Laughlin was the only person from the press office who could expect to fly to Andrews. I took the bus with other White House staffers.

The President was starting a whirlwind tour to generate support for his health care plan. The press office was again short a staffer following Jerry Hawkins’ death. Eva was staying behind at the White House to hold down the fort, which previously would have been Jerry’s job as Deputy Press Secretary. I would fill Eva’s normal role of helping Chris on the road trip. We were scheduled to stop in five cities in two days before returning home.

This would be my first time aboard Air Force One, and I was excited about it.

It was still dark when the staff bus cleared security at Andrews and came to a stop on the concrete runway. As we shuffled off the bus, Air Force M.P.’s scrutinized our security passes, matching photos to faces. Other M.P.’s led us a short distance by foot toward the familiar blue-and-white jetliner hulking above us on the runway.

The term, Air Force One, is just a call sign to designate any Air Force plane carrying the Commander in Chief. The plane we think of as Air Force One is one of two virtually identical Boeing 747’s.

The first thing you notice about Air Force One up close is how enormous it is. Even if you’ve flown on a 747, you probably boarded it from a jetway, so it’s hard to judge its scale. Next time you’re close to a six story building, picture a jetliner that high. That’s how tall a 747 is, and it’s a full city block in length. With its three separate levels, Air Force One has a four-thousand square foot interior.

The main entrance at the front of the plane—the one from which you see the President and First Lady smiling and waving—is reserved for them and a few select V.I.P.’s. The plane’s twenty-six member crew uses the service entryway, just below the main entrance. Everyone else, traveling staff and the journalists who are allowed aboard the plane, has to enter and exit the craft from an entryway at the rear of the giant jetliner.

Unfamiliar with the boarding process, I followed the other, more experienced staffers, who had seemed sleepy and bored on the bus ride to the base, through the early morning darkness to a portable stairway placed at the back of the plane. I felt a strange emotional cocktail of excitement and early morning grogginess as I carried my briefcase—we had been told that our luggage would be loaded separately—up the steep, and surprisingly unsteady, steps. Poised at the top of the stairway, ready to enter the narrow doorway into the leviathan, I flashed onto how Jonah must have felt right before the whale swallowed him.

Once inside the plane’s interior, I followed the single file procession in an immediate right turn and up another set of steps. The others proceeded toward the staff area in the plane’s front. But Chris had instructed me to remain in the press area at the rear of the craft.

This part of Air Force One resembled a generous first class cabin on a regular jumbo jet; except that the seats, besides being wide and comfortable, were also spaced further apart. I settled into one and waited for the bus carrying the traveling press pool to arrive; I was startled by a loud roar nearby. Then I realized that it must be the last of the C-141 Starlifters transporting the President’s motorcade vehicles ahead of us.

A military steward appeared. “Could I get you something sir?”

“Coffee would be great.”

“Yes, sir. How do you take it?”

“Black’s fine.”

“Certainly. Would you like a newspaper also?”


He returned shortly with a cup—real china, not plastic—bearing the presidential seal in one hand and a stack of newspapers balanced on his other arm.

I took the coffee. Wisps of steam rose from the cup.

“The Post? The Times? The Cleveland paper?” he asked. Cleveland was to be the day’s first stop.

I took a copy of the Post and thanked him. Sipping the coffee, I sank into the seat’s deep cushions and was pleasantly surprised by the coffee. I could get used to this. I couldn’t see trays on the seats, so I rested the coffee cup on the wide armrest and unfolded the newspaper. Shrub had, indeed, taken some of the thunder away from the President’s State of the Union proposals. ‘No 2000 ReMatch in’04’ read the banner headline above the fold. I noticed a tease at the bottom of the front page: ‘An Analysis of the President’s Health Plan, Page A4.’

Before I could turn to it, a commotion at the back of the cabin marked the arrival of the traveling press corps. I wasn’t sure what to do, this being my first time on Air Force One. I started to stand and offer to help, but it seemed that the small group of men and women knew what they were doing. Overcoats were removed and folded. Briefcases and purses stored.

There was some griping about the early hour as the newsies settled into the spacious seats. Most of them I recognized by sight, if not by name. I got nods or “Good morning” from a few.
Ellen Thompson, the Grand Dame of the pack, whom I had never met but recognized because of her trademark blue dress, glared at me as she settled into a seat nearby. She had covered every U.S. President since John F. Kennedy, and, as the dean of the White House press corps, expected certain privileges, such as always asking the first question at presidential news conferences.
The sun had just climbed over the horizon and beams of thin, wintry light streamed in through the cabin windows. I heard the distant thumping of helicopter rotors. It’s a racket you get used to at the White House, with the frequent comings and goings of the First Family. The sound grew louder until Marine One settled, feather-like, on the runway near us.

The President disembarked and the chopper was no longer Marine One. It was now simply a Sikorsky Sea King that bore the presidential seal.

The senior White House staff who had flown with the President hurried down the helicopter’s back exit and soon passed through the press cabin in route to the staff area toward the front of the airliner.

Chris Laughlin stopped to greet some of the journalists. “So you made it,” he said when he got to me. He bent down and nodded toward Ellen Thompson. “You’re in her seat,” he hissed.

I raised my eyebrows in an expression meant to say, ‘What should I do?’

He shrugged, then noticed the coffee cup balanced on the armrest. “Here.” He took the cup and swiveled open the top of the armrest, revealing a hidden compartment. “You pull that up,” he said as I tugged at a heavy plastic slab. “Fold it down, so. And, voila.” He set the cup on the tray that now rested before me. “You haven’t flown first class much, have you?”

I couldn’t help feeling a bit embarrassed when I heard a woman—I assumed it was Ellen Thompson—snicker.

Monday, March 3, 2008

269 people--maybe just one--decided the 2000 election

One Supreme Court justice.

That was the real difference in the 2000 presidential election. If one person had resisted the campaign’s strong-arm tactics and decided differently, maybe the Bill of Rights would still be more than a list of suggestions. Or if just 269 people in Florida had voted differently, perhaps our young men and women wouldn’t be dying in the quicksand-box of the Middle East.

Such empty speculation will be the subject of fiction writers, not me. The purpose of this memoir is to expose the White House’s secret steps which led to this mess, the many unconstitutional actions this administration has taken, and to warn of the even more extreme measures likely to—

Just one of those rolling power blackouts

Sorry. The lights went out.

A surge of adrenaline shot through me, like the electricity had been routed through my body. Waiting in the dark, in this strange house, I could practically smell my own fear.

Had the President’s men found me? Then what? How would the White House punish me, the first insider to break their Non-Disclosure Agreement? Would they end it quickly, as they tried to do before I fled Washington? Or would I be renditioned to a third-world country and tortured? Taken to Gitmo and water-boarded?

I strained through the black silence to hear the crunch of footsteps outside that would precede the breaching of the door, but all I could hear was my pulse pounding in my ears.

I realized that I had been holding my breath, so I told myself to relax and tried to breathe normally. If the administration’s goons had found me, there was little I could do.

Instinctively, I picked up a heavy lava rock, a paperweight, from the desk, although I knew it would be useless against their weapons. I stood and went slowly, hesitantly to the window. Pulling back the heavy wool curtain, cool air radiated from the glass against my cheek. I peered out.

The only lights I could see were twin beams cast by a pickup truck’s headlights as it bounced over a washboard dirt road in the foothills. The town below was dark under the silver tendrils of a half moon, high in the crystalline mountain sky.

It must have been one of those unannounced rolling blackouts. Overcome with relief, I let the curtain slip from my fingers.

How far have we sunk under this administration that a person fears for his life simply for telling the truth about the government?

It didn’t have to be this way.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

It began in Florida in 2000

Miami, Florida
November 7, 2000

“Isn’t this the kind of vehicle serial killers use?” asked the lanky redhead who bounced onto the tattered bench seat beside me.
The question drew a chuckle from one of the guys seated behind us, but the fat man in the Bermuda shorts wordlessly slid the door closed. He walked around the rust-stained van, climbed into the driver’s seat, and started the engine. He was already talking on his cell phone.
“Must be one of those serious policy wonks.” The redhead leaned toward me. “Hey, I’m Tommy Noonan.”
“Trevor Wynne.” I shook his hand. He was a couple of years older than me, maybe in his mid twenties. He wore a tie-dyed tee shirt and faded jeans. His socks showed through the toes of tattered sneakers.
“You poli-sci?” he said.
“No. Public relations major. I graduate in December. And you?”
“Poli-sci. Working on my Masters.” He perused the van’s four other occupants and shook his head. “I hoped there would be some babes.”
“That why you’re here?”
“Nah.” He shook his head, setting his unruly mop of long red hair into motion. “That would’ve been gravy. I want to make some contacts for after graduation. How about you?”
“My marketing prof called me last night. Knew I needed the money.”
“Did he tell you what we’d be doing?”
“He said it was working on voter turnout for the election today. That’s all.”
Tommy accepted the information with a shrug. He settled into the seat, and we endured the rest of the bumpy ride through the gray early morning light in silence.
The driver stopped the van outside the local campaign headquarters in Doral, a few blocks from Miami International Airport. He had talked on his cell the whole fifteen minute drive.
We unloaded from the van. The fat man led the five of us inside. He left us slurping weak coffee and disappeared down a hall at the back of the building. The open office area smelled of mildew and antiseptic spray and, faintly, of body odor. Yard signs with candidates’ names stood stacked against the walls; enormous posters bearing their likenesses loomed over the outside world through plate glass windows facing the street.
Telephones buzzed like oversized, desk-bound mosquitoes until one of the bleary-eyed workers would at last pick one up, and shout something like, “Precinct ten needs signs,” or “Somebody needs a ride to the polls in precinct seven,” seemingly to no one in particular.
“You’ve gotta love it,” Tommy Noonan said as he absorbed the scene. “Suh-weet.”
A few minutes after he disappeared, our driver re-emerged, carrying a large cardboard box. A lumpy black duffel bag hung from his shoulder.
“Come on,” he said, not bothering to pause when he got to our little group. We followed him back to the van. He drove us towards Overtown. Twenty minutes later, he parked in the handicapped space outside a soup kitchen.
“This’ll just take a second. Wait here.” He said over his shoulder. He carried the duffel bag into the church across the street and emerged a few minutes later, sans duffel bag. He opened the van’s side door and motioned. “Awright, the pastor said it’s a go. Everybody out”
He led us to the back of the vehicle, where he opened the rear door. He reached into the box and started removing cases of Marlboro cigarettes.
“Take two cases. Pass the rest on,” he said in an accent that sounded like he was from Brooklyn or the Bronx. A New York accent, at least, to my southern ear.
“Hey, I don’t smoke!” One of the guys protested.
“Tell somebody who cares, moron.” He was a short, bulb of a man, with a short, bulb of a face and the kind of scrawny mustache that made me want to take a napkin to his upper lip and wipe it away, like a parent cleaning grape juice from a child’s lips. He had stringy, black hair and dark dots for eyes.
He stopped handing out cigarettes when we each had two cartons. “So, here’s the drill. I’m your team ‘captain’.” He made quote marks with his fingers. “You can call me, Cap. We—and by we, I mean you—are going to persuade each of the fine, upstanding citizens who frequent this establishment today to do their civic duty and vote.” He held up a cigarette case. “These, are an incentive to help them decide to do the right thing.”
“How do we know if they’ve registered to vote?” a voice behind me asked.
“Oh, don’t sweat that.” Cap reached into a shirt pocket and pulled out a handful of what appeared to be voter registration cards. “They’re registered.”
“Is this legit?” I said.
“What’s your name, college boy?” Cap looked up at me. Under his suggestion of a mustache, lips curled. I couldn’t tell if it was a smile or a sneer.
“Oh, Trevor.” Up close, his breath reeked of tobacco smoke. “Well, Clever Trevor, you can either stay here and make some dough, or you can take a hike now.”
The idea of walking through Overtown by myself didn’t sound too safe, even for me. Besides, I really did need the money. “I’ll stay.”