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?”
“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.