Saturday, September 15, 2007

Viewing Dick Cheney from under the truck

Sometimes I get to see people like Vice President Dick Cheney in fancy ballrooms or boisterous campaign rallies.

Other times, like Friday, I get to kneel under a flatbed truck.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. One of the best parts of a job I love is that I occasionally get to see important people like Cheney up close.

I’m fascinated by the presidency, and I love seeing and learning about all the behind-the-scenes details that go into a visit.

Cheney was in town the day after President Bush’s national address about Iraq to hammer home the president’s message before a friendly audience.

One of our editors came over and asked if I’d like to be a part of the coverage. He already knew the answer and saved us all the spectacle of me begging.

My assignment was to cover Cheney’s arrival at the airport, then head to where he was giving the speech to monitor the protesters who would no doubt be there and look for things that can be written as vignettes.

We call the arrival assignment “death watch” because it tends not to generate any news. But woe to the news organization that passes up the opportunity and have something terrible happen.

A presidential aircraft just doesn’t drop down and taxi to the main terminal. In our city, they tend to land at the opposite end of the airport near hangars owned by one of the freight companies. It’s out in the middle of nowhere and easier to secure.

And security is tight as you can imagine. Media types were required to show up more than an hour before the arrival time, and television crews left their equipment out on the airport apron – don’t call it a tarmac – so the Secret Service could check it out.

Once the crews are done, each reporter and photographer was checked out with the hand-held metal detectors before being allowed through the gate. A staff member handed us red identification badges and a piece of string so we could wear them around our necks. The string is cheesy, but the press pass is not and I hang them above my desk because I am a geek.

Out on the apron, there were two of those portable staircases to move to the plane and a flatbed truck trailer for us to stand on. The motorcade was already in place, brought, I suspect, in the Air Force cargo plane that was off to the side.

There were a handful of dignitaries assembled to greet the vice president after he arrives, usually state and local political leaders. There were Secret Service agents everywhere and you do no mess with them. I keep waiting for another reporter to tick them off because I think it would be fun to watch.

Cheney’s jet arrived about 10 minutes ahead of schedule. When a president arrives there are two jets because there is a back-up for everything. But the vice presidents get just one.

There are few things as stirring as seeing a presidential jet with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA written in huge letters above the widows.

It had been overcast all morning, and rain started coming down hard as the jet taxied closer to the hanger. I didn’t even think to bring a jacket, much less an umbrella, and I was getting soaked. I asked the officer guarding the flatbed if it would be OK if I went under the trailer so I could stay dry and take notes. He asked one of the Secret Service agents, who smiled and said that would be fine. It was the first time I had ever seen one of those guys smile.

In case you are wondering, there is no dignified way to crawl under one of these trailers and, naturally, I banged my head.

Luckily, the rain died down as the jet came to a stop, and the greeters were quickly escorted to the end of the portable staircase. I was able to get out from under the trailer and stand in front of it.

The door at the rear of the plane opened first, and assorted Air Force personnel and staff people scurried down with carrying cases of all different shapes that they unloaded into the trunks of cars in the motorcade.

Then the door toward the front of the jet opened, with the vice presidential seal affixed to the inside. Usually, the politico will stand in the door for a moment and wave as if there were throngs of people waiting. The first President Bush was famous for pointing, as if there was someone special there. This is done entirely for the cameras.

But Cheney tends to be all business. Last time I covered him he walked out the door and down the stairs without even looking up. This time he walked out with a huge umbrella, followed by his daughter, Elizabeth.

Two black limos with the vice presidential seal are parked near the bottom of the stairs, and the Cheneys shook hands for a moment or two before stepping into the second car.

We were allowed to leave only after the motorcade cleared the area.

Next I went to the area downtown where the protesters were supposed to be, only to find that they had marched down to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, where Cheney was speaking.

There were about 75 of them, holding signs, blowing whistles and banging plastic buckets.

After covering these things for years, I’ve come to realize protesters fall into two groups.

There are people who are passionate about an issue and believe it is their responsibility to make their opinions known to their elected leaders. They’re usually interesting to interview.

Then there are people who just like to protest anything, anywhere and any time. “Fighting the Man” is kind of a hobby, even if “the Man” is kind of a shifting target.

I understood the signs and the banners, but I didn’t get the whistles and drums. As reporters, we can just go up to people and ask questions. So I approached a group of the whistlers.

They said the idea was to make a distraction to all attention to their position on the war.

“The giant banners don’t do that?”

“We want to drown out the speech inside.”

“Do you think that’s going to change the mind of anyone inside?”

“Probably not.”

Seems kind of pointless to me, but I suspect they’d think that me paying to watch other people play baseball is pointless as well.

After the speech, Cheney briefly visited President Ford’s grave, where nine months ago he presented Betty Ford with the flag that draped the president’s casket.

Then it was back into the black limos and the airport for Cheney to deliver the speech in another city.


Anonymous said...

I hope he wasn't carrying any hunting equipment. That is, unless you get combat pay.

Please make a note to yourself; "freinds don't let freinds shoot friends"

G-Fafif said...

Appropriate headline considering how many political pawns Cheney's shop has thrown under the bus.

(Sorry, Dave. Couldn't resist.)

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