Backstory: 14 hours, really, with Dick Cheney
The often invisible vice president stumps from Topeka to a tugboat, with press in tow.
ABOARD AIR FORCE TWO
The running joke among White House correspondents is that the most glamorous part of our job is ... telling people you cover the White House.Skip to next paragraph
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In fact, as much as reporters like to complain about life in the much-maligned White House press corps, it has its moments – careening around in motorcades with no regard for red lights, quips from President Bush about one's wardrobe, the tiny lamb chops at the White House Christmas party.
But what about covering the No. 2 man, Dick Cheney, widely seen as the most powerful vice president in history? After all, he is better known for being sequestered in undisclosed locations than for chatting up journalists.
Then the invitation came: Would I like to spend a day flying around the country – well, actually, from Washington to Topeka to New Orleans, then back to Washington – as the "pool" reporter with Vice President Cheney? My job would be to go where I was told and file to my fellow reporters summaries of the vice president's actions and any color I felt like throwing in. I accepted.
On the appointed day, last Thursday, I arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside D.C. in Maryland, at 7:30 a.m., whereupon I was asked to open all the doors, hood, and trunk of my car for an inspection by a military dog. I passed. Then it was on to the terminal, where I was met by Jamie, a friendly young press aide in the vice president's office. Two other reporters, Mike Allen of Time magazine and Brendan Murray of Bloomberg, joined us.
Soon we were boarding Air Force Two, a Boeing 757 modified for vice presidential needs, such as secure communication and a private section at the front with a large vice presidential seal on the door. Most of us flying that day – press, flight attendants, Secret Service, military, other aides – boarded via a stairway into the back of the plane. After we journalists had been shown our seats (coach size, while most of the other seats are business-class size), we were invited to go back outside and watch Mr. Cheney exit his helicopter, Marine Two, and board Air Force Two via a separate staircase into the front of the plane. Cheney and several additional aides boarded; we were airborne in minutes.
"Wheels up 9:25," I wrote in the pool report. "TVs set to Fox. Flight time to Topeka 2-1/2 hours."
Then they fed us: western omelets with salsa, hash browns, bacon, plain bagels with cream cheese, yogurt and granola parfaits with blueberries and strawberries. And that was after a fruit basket had been passed around. White House travel is known for its plentiful meals and snacks, and I had wisely skipped breakfast at home. (The Monitor will get a considerable bill for the flights and meals later.)
Next up, getting down to business. Lea Anne McBride, Cheney's communications director, came back to talk to the reporters about the speech the vice president would be delivering in Topeka at a fundraiser for Rep. Jim Ryun (R). Cheney was still putting finishing touches on his remarks, but he would focus on the economy and security, with an emphasis on "consequence," she said. The meaning of that last part soon became clear when we received an advance copy of the text: what to expect if the Democrats take control of Congress.
The speech was classic Cheney – red meat for core Republican voters at a time when anxiety is high over the GOP-led Congress's poor public image, the Iraq war, and scandals. Congressman Ryun appears in no danger of losing his seat, but no one's taking any chances.