When a president steps out of the door of Air Force One and waves, there's no one but media types to wave to. But it looks good.
Given that the Mets had an extended All-Star break this year, I decided to take some quality time with the family and head to Washington D.C.
It’s both a vacation and an educational experience for the kids. We were in awe at Daniel Chester French’s statue in the Lincoln Memorial and fought back tears reading notes left at the base of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.
It also was pretty emotional seeing the Declaration of Independence and Constitution for the first time. A historian during Ken Burn’s epic documentary stated than in 2,000 years, the United States will be remembered for three things: that Constitution, baseball and jazz. I don’t know about the jazz, but I’m certain he’s correct about the other two.
Plus, I’m a bit of a presidential junkie. OK, a big presidential junkie. I have portraits of Theodore Roosevelt hanging in my living room. So I wasted no time in lining the kids up in front of the nice house owned by the former Texas Rangers owner for some photos. And one of the highlights was when our tourmobile had to pull over to allow the owner himself to pass by in his motorcade.
Seeing a sitting U.S. president is always a big thrill, and one of the joys of my job is that I get to do that from time to time.
It’s also pretty fascinating to learn all the things that go into a staging a presidential visit, and hear about some of the funny inside baseball stuff.
Flint's airport was part of my beat when Bill Clinton came to town to make a speech in 1993. I was determined to be a part of our coverage in some way, and camped out at the airport to cover the arrival. We call these assignments “death watch,” because there won’t any news unless something horrible happens – and you want to be there just in case. Not that we want such things to happen.
Any reporter who plans to get anywhere a president has to jump through some hoops, which includes a criminal background check.
Then we had to arrive at the airport extra early, and lay our equipment on the ground so bomb-sniffing dogs can check them out. Not a big deal for my pad and pens, but it was a hassle for the television types, which is fine with me.
The airport had a flat bed truck on the apron for us to stand on and get a view of the Clinton walking down the steps. And here’s something you might not know. Those concrete areas near the gates at an airport are not called the tarmac. The airport workers told me that a tarmac is actually a form of crushed stone used by the military to create temporary landing strips in remote areas. The proper name, they insisted, is apron, which just isn’t as much fun to say. But I digress.
The airport administrator said the preparations actually started days prior to the arrival. The night before, three huge cargo planes arrived. One had the president’s entire motorcade; another had three of those green and white helicopters you see the president boarding on the White House lawn. And the other carried massive amounts of communications equipment and goodness knows what else.
And there are multiple sets of these things. When a president visits multiple places in a day, the sets leap frog each other.
And for the entire time the president was on the ground in, an entire emergency room crew was on standby in an area hospital, scrubbed and ready to go.
So I was out there on the flatbed truck with the television types, and the area was is blocked off with those metal construction barricades with the blinking orange lights that they used before the orange barrels you see today.
My heart was racing when Air Force One came down out of the sky. It’s an impressive plane. A second one followed, because there is a spare for everything.
The media types who travel with the president deplaned first, and they all crowded around the base of stairs that pulled up to the door near the front. I tried getting down from the flatbed to join that group. A stern agent shook his head, and said, “Nice try, though.”
Then Clinton and Hillary stepped out of the doors and started waving. This was entirely for the cameras, because there was nobody there to wave to. The agents weren’t thrilled about having credentialed media types within view, much less someone the president might actually want to wave to.
The motorcade then sped up to the foot of the stairs, and off went the president.
Every road to U of M – Flint, where he was speaking, was blocked off.
We were left on the flatbed to cool our heels and admire the plane. The airport director told me to look at the roof of every building I could see – and there were sharpshooters.
Less than an hour later the motorcade reappeared. Police cars were in the lead. Then there was a black SUV, which came to a halt and a team of agents who looked armed to the teeth jumped out. When the doors opened I could see that the doors were lined with gun racks. The thing was a rolling armory.
Clinton emerged, climbed the steps, turned and waved good-bye – again, to no one but the cameras, giving them the photo they needed.
It took a little while to get the national media types back on the plane, then the jet engines started getting louder. It appeared that the 747 was going to make a sharp right turn, with us facing the rear of the jet.
A Secret Service assigned to stand near us turned and casually said, “You might want to hold on to something. It’s going to be a little windy.”
That was an understatement. I’m sure he knew it.
I ended up kneeling on the edge of the flatbed, holding to the edge for dear life. The metal barricades with the blinking lights went flying. Television photogs were trying to hold on to their equipment, and the “on-air personalities,” well, they needed more hairspray. I’m surprised all of us stayed atop the truck. It was that strong.
And off went Clinton, and I presume the three cargo jets with the choppers, motorcade and equipment followed him later in the day or headed to his next location. It was astonishing to me the amount of preparation and expense that went into a visit that lasted about as much time as takes Steve Trachsel to pitch two innings.
I thought about that day as the motorcade passed the tourmobile, with motorcycle cops in the lead, followed by the black SUV – and this time I could see the agents with very big guns in their laps – followed by several black vehicles and more police officers.
The tour guide was blasé, but I still found it fascinating.
DC baseball notes:
We drove base RFK Stadium, which does not look like a good place to watch a baseball game, at least from the outside. But at least there appeared to be parking. The Washington Post had a story about the proposed new stadium and how there would be 9,000 parking spaces, some of them very far flung.
We stayed in a place about halfway between Washington and Baltimore. But Nationals gear accounted for at least 80 percent of the baseball stuff at the Model’s near the hotel. Got myself a couple cool caps!
There were Orioles t-shirts marked down to $5. I presume that was because the names “Sosa” and “Palmiero” were printed on the backs.
Thomas Boswell of the Post is a joy to read. And the local media had much praise for the trade with the Reds – and predict it is setting up several others to me mmade by the Nats in the coming two weeks.