Donald Trump, with his usual contempt for customs and civilities his billions can’t buy, blustered the other day that Hillary Clinton shouldn’t have been given a ride to a Charlotte political rally on Air Force One, “that big American plane,” as he called it. Never mind that President Obama, campaigning with her, needs the electronics and other facilities; and never mind that political campaigns usually pay a pro-rated share for political flights. But when has Trump refrained from sounding off in ignorance?
Trump’s bluster did remind me, however, that I once took a free ride on Air Force One. President and Mrs. Clinton invited me to attend a college basketball game in Charlotte. They would be returning from the West Coast, but if I could get to the game on my own they would take me back to Washington on Air Force One.
Who could resist?
As I was renting a car for my one-way trip to Charlotte, it occurred to me that the thing might be a hoax by my friend Willie Morris. I dialed the contact in Charlotte. It was very early. A foggy voice, awakened from sound sleep, came on the line. I was embarrassed to reveal why I’d called – so I asked, innocently, where I was supposed to meet the presidential party. The sleepy voice answered politely, and I set out.
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It was a game involving Bill Clinton’s beloved Arkansas Razorbacks and, for me, entirely forgettable – but not my appearance on television at a Saturday NCAA game with the Leader of the Free World. The cameras showed me with Clinton and others, including Harvey Gantt, who was running against Jesse Helms for the U.S. Senate. Back home, the phone began to ring. “Your appearance with Clinton,” said a friend in Lexington, Virginia, where I was teaching, “was bigger Palm Sunday news at Robert E. Lee Church than Our Lord’s ride into Jerusalem.” “You looked properly worshipful,” teased an old friend in New York.
But back to Air Force One.
There are two entries, front and back, and I was politely told, as I took the front steps, that only the president enters that way. Thus admonished, I took the back steps and seated myself with other steerage passengers. Bill Clinton, passing by, spotted me. “Come on up front,” he said, “and sit with Hillary and me.” (Taxpayers will be pleased to hear that the presidential cabin is – or was then – austere and unadorned.)
The ride from Charlotte to Andrews Air Force Base, where Air Force One comes and goes and is parked when not in use, lasted 40 minutes. As we took off, the president, no admirer of the privileges assumed by Washington “investigative” reporters (and with good reason, as it later developed), said: “Ed, please explain to me how the Washington press works.”
“Mr. President...” I began, whereupon he talked for 40 minutes about the press. His assessment was not flattering. As we landed and said our good-byes, I offered to send him a memo. I can’t recall it verbatim, but my usual theme was and is that it is pointless for public officials to fret about reporters. They are bred to hunt, like bird dogs. As well try to discourage a pointer at a quail covey as try to discourage reporters’ tendency to stick their noses into official matters, sometimes with embarrassing results. (The recent to-do about Hillary Clinton’s emails is an example. Maybe she was indiscreet, but too few know that the real scandal is pointless secrecy, in which millions of items are “classified,” greatly extending the reportorial hunting ground and trivializing the entire practice.) I never heard more of my memo. No doubt it reposes in well-deserved obscurity in the Clinton Library in Little Rock.
As for my single ride on the “big American plane,” I never received a bill. I should add that journalistic colleagues of a more detached bent frown on the kind of personal relationship I had, as a working columnist, with Bill Clinton and others, notably including Justice Lewis Powell and the excellent Sens. Sam Nunn and Pat Moynihan. My mentor on this issue was the great James (Scotty) Reston of the New York Times, who considered it a good idea for the press to know public figures as human beings and handle their human foibles with at least minimal sympathy.
They still do so in London but not, alas, in Washington, D.C., which grows more acidic and inhuman by the hour.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.