The running joke among White House correspondents is that the most glamorous part of our job is ... telling people you cover the White House.
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.
"If the Democrats take control, American families would face an immense tax increase, and the economy would sustain a major hit," Cheney told the crowd.
If the Democrats were already in control, he warned, the USA Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping – a program the White House calls the Terrorist Surveillance Program – and the program of detention and military trials would be in jeopardy.
Cheney named names – not just the top Democrats who would lead both houses if their party wins majorities, Nancy Pelosi in the House and Harry Reid in the Senate – but also probable committee chairs.
"I don't need to tell you what kind of legislation would come to us by way of committee chairmen like Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, John Conyers, Henry Waxman, Barney Frank, or Jay Rockefeller," he said, eliciting boos and then laughter.
It was his 113th campaign appearance in the current two-year election cycle. The event raised $215,000 for Ryun, boosting Cheney's total fundraising for Republican candidates and committees since March 2005 to $40 million.
Speech over, time to sprint to the motorcade, as Cheney was whisked out of the room. Wheels up at 1:15 p.m. central time. On to New Orleans for Cheney's first visit since September 2005, right after hurricane Katrina.
En route, we were fed garden salads with spicy chicken strips and the world's densest brownies. (I wondered if Cheney was eating the same thing, but such detail is not observable. He never emerged from his private cabin during all our time on AF2.) Before long, we landed in New Orleans, where a blast of hot air hit us as we deplaned. We weren't in Kansas anymore.
On the agenda was a visit to the port and a tour of a tugboat owned by the Canal Barge Company, an example of a New Orleans business that is fully back in operation post-Katrina. Reporters were allowed to jam into the wheelhouse and watch the veep get a tour from the captain – but "don't crowd the vice president," a press aide warned.
Cheney then received a private briefing from the Army Corps of Engineers, after which reporters were treated to what the schedule called a "pool spray" – remarks by Cheney to the press, but no questions. Then it was time for more fundraising. While Cheney went off to a reception for the Republican National Committee (total take $180,000) the press was briefed by Don Powell, federal coordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding. Briefing over, I had about 10 minutes of "filing time" to submit my second pool report, about enough time to get the computer set up, then packed up to leave. Then it was back to the motorcade, back to the airport, and back to Washington. Jambalaya, corn bread, and cupcakes were on the menu, soon followed by Dove bars (but who could possibly have room?) Wheels down at 9:30 p.m. Eastern time, a half-hour early.
Fabulous, I thought. I can get home in time to tell my kids to go to bed. I start out from Andrews in my '92 Toyota Camry, along with Mike Allen, who is hitching a ride with me back to D.C. After several miles, I sense trouble. The battery light comes on, and I know what's happening: My car is losing power. It dies in a tunnel on Route 295. Long story short, the tow truck arrives at midnight, and Mike, my guardian angel, flags us a cab.
It was a surreal ending to a day of adventure. I'm still not sure if I would describe flying around the country with the vice president as glamorous, but compared with breaking down in a tunnel underneath the Capitol and having to wait two hours for a tow truck, the answer is, absolutely!