The 404 Reports
Summaries of under-reported news, updates on previous Monitor stories
[Editor's note: Before there were blogs, there were the Monitor "404 Reports," which began in 1997 as a forum to offer updates on previous Monitor stories and discuss items in today's news that deserved greater media attention. Significant additions or changes to the Albion Monitor site will also be announced here. Do not bookmark this page, as the 404 Reports address will change with each edition.]
THE SERIAL ABUSER OF AIR FORCE ONE The wingnuts came up with some pretty wacky ideas during the 1990s, but none was stranger than their fixation with Bill Clinton on airplanes. It wasn't just that every domestic stop was denounced as a taxpayer ripoff for partisan fundraising, and every diplomatic mission was cast as a wasteful junket (and in two cases, supposedly payoff to keep a woman quiet about sex abuse). His eight years in the White House were neatly framed by their charges that he delayed 1993 LA air traffic to have stylist Christophe of Beverly Hills cut his hair, and finally accusations that the Clintonistas "trashed" Air Force One as the plane was carrying him home to Arkansas after the Bush inauguration. These accusations were a pack of lies, and easily debunked in a pair of earlier 404 reports. But so compelling was the myth of Democrats abusing aircraft that the Drudge wrecking crew tried to revive the haircut theme about Kerry in 2004, except this time Christophe was flown in -- presumably on wife Teresa's private jet -- to give the vainglorious Democrat a $1,000 trim.
Who picks up the tab for all this? We do, of course. All expenses are paid by taxpayers if the White House claims it's an "official" trip, but if the travel is deemed "political," federal election rules require payback of the cost of a first-class plane ticket for each "political" passenger. In 2004, the GOP reimbursed White House Airlift Operations slightly over $1 million. That may seem like a lot, but it's estimated that it costs $60,250 for every hour Air Force One is in the air (and that doesn't even count the expense of military cargo planes that shuttle the presidential limo and helicopter along with him), which means that the Repubs paid for only 17 hours of total flight time.
Our story could end right here and still be a classic example of the Passive Press; Bush's air adventures received almost no media attention because Democrats weren't making a fuss about the issue, unlike the furious Republican party barking during the Clinton years. During the 2004 campaign, AP reporter Scott Lindlaw asked the White House to explain how it determines whether a trip is official or political, or how it calculates what to reimburse the government. They refused to answer and presumably the Dems failed to comment, leaving the reporter with little more than a milquetoast quote from a watchdog group: "It's really something that's abused." There was also a single story in the Washington Post this April, after Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California) requested a GAO audit of the "60 Stops in 60 Days" blitzkreig intended to whip up support for gutting Social Security.
The issue finally got some ink in late September, after fuel prices peaked and Bush called for conservation in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A few newspapers ran op/eds pointing out the hypocrisy of the president's repeated trips to the devastated Gulf, along with his commanding a fleet of gas-guzzling, heavily-armored SUVs; "Maybe now that our hydrocarbon president is the conservation president, he'll downgrade from Air Force One to a solar-powered Piper Cub as he continues to stalk the Gulf Coast towns and oil rigs like Banquo's ghost," jibed NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd.
But there's another White House flight controversy that's received no attention outside the aviation press: the abuse of presidential and vice-presidential TFRs (Temporary Flight Restrictions) since 9/11. The FAA has always imposed some rules on the freedom of aircraft to come anywhere near the president and veep -- which is a perfectly reasonable rule for the safety of America's commander-in-chief as well as president Bush, of course -- and before 2002, that no-fly bubble around the president was 3-5 nautical miles across and usually 5,000 feet high. But the Secret Service under the Bush administration stretched the limits to be typically 60 nautical miles wide and reach up to 18,000 feet. Worse, the executive office TFRs appear and disappear, expand and contract, and all with little notification. Prohibited Area P-49, for example, surrounds Bush's Texas home. When he's away, the old rules -- 3 miles/5,000 feet apply -- but when George and Laura are in town, it suddenly balloons up to the full 30 mile radius, 18,000 feet restriction. And woe to the pilots that stray into the forbidden zone during those times; a 60-day license suspension is standard, after being forced down by military aircraft and interrogated by the Secret Service. In 2003, there were an average of about 3 violations per week over the skies of Crawford.
Pilots dislike surprise meet-ups with interceptor jets, particularly when their certificate can be pulled over an innocent mistake, and complain that the restrictions are often arbitrary and unnecessary. Just before Thanksgiving, the FAA issued without warning a new 1-mile radius TFR over St. Michaels, Maryland, where the Cheneys are buying a home. Unlike the TFR around the official Cheney residence in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which is only active when the vice-president is there, the "temporary" flight restriction over Maryland is permanent and full-time. And pilots are still steaming over an incident in December 2003, when a fifty nautical mile block suddenly went up around Kitty Hawk, in preparation for Bush to drop by and make a short speech. With the two nearest airports now 60 and 80 miles away from the Wright Brothers National Memorial, tempers flared as angry airplane bluffs had to find ground transportation to attend the long-anticipated Centennial of Flight celebrations.
Protests over TFR policies have been filed with the FAA and the Homeland Security Dept. by AOPA (Aircraft Owner & Pilots Ass'n, the biggest flyer's organization), to little avail. The group has helped matters considerably by offering their own webpage on current Presidential/VIP movement TFRs, which is far superior to the near-gibberish FAA alert webpage. But neither list is complete; in the topsy-turvy world of post-9/11 security, there are often TFRs that the government doesn't know about. A new rule requires aircraft stay far away from any major sporting events that may have 30,000 people attending, thus expecting pilots to not only know the seating capacity of any sports complex enroute, but also be up-to-date on the calendar for the NFL, NASCAR, and other big sports.
The problems of TFRs added considerably to the misery during the first few critical days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf. Private pilots with their own small planes, frustrated in contacts with FEMA were ignored or rebuffed, began flying their own aid missions only to run into a patchwork of no-fly zones set up around military relief operations. As a columnist wrote for an online aviation magazine, "Some who loaded up their airplanes with food and water and headed for the coast found that the TFRs that were thrown up hastily prevented providing assistance to one area, yet they could fly into other airports in areas that needed the aid as badly because, inexplicably, there was no TFR over that spot." The FAA finally slapped a TFR over the whole area on September 3rd, which actually helped -- now any plane could enter the area as long as they had received clearance on a special radio frequency setup to handle traffic during the emergency.
There was one remaining obstacle in the path of these propeller-driven samaritans; everything came to a stop whenever Bush flew into the area, bringing with him that 60 nautical mile security bubble. And, of course, the president made a record seven visits to the region in September -- a trip at least once every five days -- to demonstrate just how very much he cared.
Private pilots again found themselves stymied by unpredictable restrictions, which, in at least one instance, blocked a major delivery of emergency supplies. Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon and the Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner had three tons of food and water waiting to be delivered Sept. 2 to hard-hit refugees in St. Bernard Parish, but the flight was cancelled on account of a presidential tour of destruction. Hoping to break the logjam, Melancon went to the airport where Air Force One was sitting on the tarmac and tried in vain to reach the presidential security detail on the plane just 300 yards away, with the aid of a U.S. Marshall with a satellite phone. "After an hour and a half of that, and two hours to get down there, I am now back on my way, without seeing the president, not accomplishing anything in my mind today. I've wasted time while people are dying in South Louisiana," the Congressman later told AP. The supplies were finally transferred to a truck, where they were delayed for several hours more in the traffic gridlock on the main bridge.
While Bush's drop-in PR efforts were making matters worse in New Orleans, many ad hoc groups and individuals were rushing to the aid of their fellow Americans, their tales now told on scores of personal web pages; see Ry Jones' blog for a good account (pictures, too). But one rescue effort stands out above all others -- the airlift of Al Gore.
On September 1, Greg Simon, president of "FasterCures" medical research advocacy group, learned that the situation was dire for patients at New Orleans' Charity hospital. Reaching out to his network of contacts, he found Steve Davison's charter airplane service and learned that it would cost $50,000 per flight. Through friends of friends, Simon also found the e-mail address of the former VP, and asked him for help raising the money. Gore immediately promised to guarantee payment. That was the first breakthrough, Simon later wrote: "None of the airlines involved required a contract or any written guarantee of payment before sending their planes and volunteer crews -- the first time Steve Davison had ever witnessed that in 15 years of chartering planes for political campaigns and other events. One official said if Gore promised to pay, that was good enough for them."
The next 24 hours were frantic for Simon (read his remarkable full account here) and as each obstacle arose, Gore knew who to contact to fix things. He called the governor of Tennessee, who smoothed the way with the state and national FEMA operations. He called Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta to overcome problems with landing clearance at the airport. He recruited two doctors for the trip, including his cousin, a retired Air Force colonel who both served in Somalia and ran the military hospital in Baghdad after the invasion. As it turned out, he had trained many of the military doctors now on the scene of the disaster.
At 8:30AM on Sept. 3, Al Gore, his son, and the two doctors stepped off the plane in New Orleans. Less than seven hours later, their packed chartered jet landed in Tennessee with about 140 elderly and infirm patients from flooded Charity hospital. And they repeated the operation again the next day, with Gore again calling Mineta after new airport hassles arose. Altogether, Al Gore and his team airlifted around 270 people from the disaster area.
"We decided not to return to New Orleans because the medical patients we could take had been helped," wrote Simon. "Gore said that on the second trip to New Orleans, the doctors at the airport told him that the evacuation of the first 90 ambulatory patients had been the tipping point in their ability to adequately care for the other bedridden patients. They also noted that the military evacuations did not really pick up steam until after we 'motivated' them with our private effort."
Gore declined to take credit for his part in the remarkable operation, and has never spoken of it publicly. Simon's account -- now widely reprinted by Democratic bloggers -- remains the only detailed narrative of the heroic events. Print media coverage was limited to the local Tennessee papers and a short derived AP item, a passing reference in the NY Times, and a later Houston Chronicle editorial. All in all, a fine example of the Passive Press ignoring something very newsworthy because there wasn't a PR flack leading them by the nose.
Bush's disasterously slow response to Hurricane Katrina is now widely considered as the moment when Americans finally realized the emperor has no clothes. But it also serves as the other side of an arc that started with the Y2000 election. Then voters supposedly cared most about the issue of presidential character. And here, almost five years later, was character fully on display: Al Gore, personally directing airlift operations to save the American lives, just a day after George Bush stood near the same place and made empty, feel-good promises, then waxed nostalgic about his own heyday of Bourbon St. debauchery. (November 30, 2005)
Albion Monitor Issue 140 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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