How Ya Doin’, Mister Vice President?

Politicians, planes, and pilot black magic.

November 8, 2016

I’VE MET THREE PRESIDENTS. None of them American presidents, but presidents nevertheless.

The first of them was John Atta Mills, the semi-beloved leader of Ghana. Mills died in 2012, but during his tenure he and his entourage had ridden aboard my airplane at least twice.

If you think that’s vaguely impressive, I also had the honor of meeting and flying the President of Guyana, Bharat Jagdeo, two or three times. (Contrary to what my father and others seem to think, Ghana and Guyana are in fact different countries, on different continents, and with different presidents to boot.)

Third on the list is Ellen Johnson Sirlief, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the President of Liberia. I’ve met her four times, including once at a reception at Roberts Field. The last time she was on my plane, about a year ago, I asked if she’d be kind enough to sign a copy of the flight plan. She obliged, writing her name in green ink at the bottom of the dot-matrix printout.

Things have worked out pretty well for me, I think. Years ago, when I was puttering around over Plum Island, sweating to death in some noisy old Cessna, the idea that one day I’d be be carrying presidents in the back of my plane would have struck me as ludicrous.

There is, however, a dark side to my brushes with politicians. And if you’re planning to run for office, you might do well to keep your distance from me.

What am I talking about? Below are six vignettes, true stories all:

One day in 1980 I’m at Boston’s Logan airport, plane-spotting with a pair of my junior high pals. Who disembarks from a TWA plane only a few feet in front of us but Jerry Brown, then-governor (and, yes, governor again!) of California. In addition to his gubernatorial prowess, Mr. Brown, a.k.a. “Governor Moonbeam,” is known for his dabbling in Buddhism, his long liaison with Linda Ronstadt, and his appearance in one of the most famous punk rock songs — the Dead Kennedys’ “California Über Alles.”

Four years later, the late senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts speaks at my high school graduation (St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts).

Six years after that, on a Sunday morning in 1990, I’m standing at Teterboro Airport, a busy general aviation field in New Jersey, close to New York City. A private jet pulls up. The stairs come down, and out steps Jesse Jackson and several burly bodyguards. Jackson walks into the terminal, passing me by inches.

The following summer I’m back at Logan, using a payphone in Terminal E. Suddenly Ted Kennedy is standing at the phone next to me, placing a call. (Quaint, I know, in this age of wireless, but there’s the famous Senator, slipping dimes into the slot.) I’m talking to a friend, and I surreptitiously hold up the receiver. “Listen,” I say, “whose voice is this?”

“Sounds like Ted Kennedy,” she answers. And it is.

Next it’s 1994. Logan again, and I’m in the captain’s seat of a Northwest Airlink 19-seater, preparing for departure to Baltimore. Up the front stairs comes Michael Dukakis. He stops briefly behind the cockpit and says hello.

Later, in the late spring of that same year, Vice President Al Gore is making the commencement speech at Harvard University, close to my Cambridge apartment. Out riding my bike, I stumble on Gore, his wife Tipper, and his two blonde daughters as they make their way across a rope line at the back of Harvard Yard. He shakes my hand.

So, my question is: what is it that makes those six encounters so collectively significant? Think about it. Each has something in common. Or, more correctly, two things. What are they?

While you’re mulling it over, I’ll give you the longer versions of my run-ins with Dukakis and Gore:

After we land in Baltimore, Dukakis thanks us for the ride and remarks, “Not a lot of room in here.” Even at 5’8″ he’s right about that. The Metroliner’s skinny, tubular fuselage earned it the nickname “lawn dart.”

“Yeah,” I answer, “It’s not exactly Air Force One.”

Meanwhile, intentionally or otherwise, the Duke has left a huge sheaf of important-looking papers in his seat pocket — probably because he’s run to a phone to cuss out his secretary for booking him on that stupid little plane with the annoying pilot. I carry the papers inside to the agent and say, “Here, these belong to Mike Dukakis.” She looks at me like I’m crazy.

The Duke flew to Baltimore in one of these

The day that I met Al Gore was sunny and humid. It was one of those days when I’d ride my mountain bike aimlessly around my neighborhood in Cambridge, hoping to meet a girl or maybe find a bag of money on the sidewalk. I never had much luck on those counts, but then I’d never run into a Vice President either.

I come down Broadway, then up Kirkland Street to the corner of Harvard Yard. The graduation ceremonies have just ended, and Gore — his family and a handful of Secret Service men in tow — have come through a gate and are walking toward the concrete plaza in front of the Science Center. I lock up my bike and follow them.

A crowd of about 50 people quickly gathers. Those of us in front form a straight row, and Gore comes down the line to shake each of our hands. Gore is a Harvard graduate, and most of those around me also are Harvard alum, or the parents and families of graduating seniors. People are introducing themselves with lines like, “Charles Tipton-Dune, sir, class of ’68. It’s an honor to meet you.”

And Al says, “It’s a pleasure.”

As he approaches me, it’s my plan to say, “Patrick Smith, sir, class of ’88” (a total fabrication, but I’m feeling left out). Instead, I get nervous and do something much more idiotic. So idiotic, in fact, that to this day it makes my skin burn with embarrassment when I remember it. My turn comes, and I look up at Al Gore, the Vice President of the United States of America. I stick out my hand and I say:

“How ya doin’?”

Bear in mind, too, that I’m wearing shorts and a ratty old Husker Du t-shirt, surrounded by people in suits and gowns. I’m sweaty from bicycling. Gore shakes my hand and looks at me, a bit crookedly, no doubt wondering if I’m not some protégé of John Hinckley or Squeaky Frome.

“Great,” he answers.

How ya doin’?

After that I break from the crowd and go over to the black limousine parked on the plaza near the fountain. This is Gore’s car, an ’80s-model Cadillac that looks like the cars of my Sicilian neighbors when I was a kid growing up in Revere. The tinting is peeling from several of the windows. It surprises me that such an important person is asked to ride around in such a shitty car. The Secret Service men inside eye me lazily. They wear sunglasses and have coiled wires sticking from their ears. They don’t seem particularly concerned with my loitering, and I nod to the guy in the driver’s seat. How ya doin’?

Right, okay, so back to my riddle. What do Jerry Brown, Paul Tsongas, Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Mike Dukakis and Al Gore all have in common, in addition to crossing paths with yours truly?

The answer, of course, is that all six were Democrats who ran for President. And all six, whether it was the party nomination or general election, lost.

That’s pretty uncanny if you think about it. Six – six! – Democrats who ran and failed.

I should note, too, that I once shared a shuttle flight from New York to Boston with Chelsea Clinton. She and her husband were sitting just a few rows ahead of me. At one point I was taking something down for the overhead bin when she passed me in the aisle. I was in her way and had to move aside. “Sorry,” I said. “Excuse me,”

“Thanks,” said Chelsea Clinton.

I don’t know if Chelsea has any political ambitions, but if so, she might wish to rethink them.

Meanwhile (no this isn’t over yet), there’s talk that Theo Epstein, the General Manager of the Chicago Cubs, former GM of the Boston Red Sox, and like Mr. Dukakis a native of Brookline, Massachusetts, is pondering a move into politics. Maybe state rep or something like that. As a Democrat. Epstein is young, bright, eminently successful, well-connected well-liked. What could possibly sink him?

Well, guess what. The Boston-La Guardia Shuttle again.

And no, I have never — not once — seen or met a Republican candidate for President. Whatever dreary karma I’m lugging around seems to be very partisan.

Although, I did have the very conservative, would-be Supreme Court judge Robert Bork on one of my planes back in 1992, and look what happened to him!

But I know, enough with the politicos. Celebrities are what you want.

Among the celebrities I’ve carried safely through the air are Kanye West (Zurich to New York), F. Murray Abraham (Bucharest to New York), and Katie Couric (Los Angeles to New York).

In the summer of 1991 I flew David Atkins, better known to the world as “Sinbad,” the thankfully forgotten actor and comedian who once had his own talk show and HBO comedy special, from Boston to Nantucket. He sat in the back row of our Beech 99, surrounded by an entourage of beautiful women. Okay, thankfully forgotten is a terrible thing to say, even if he did wind up emceeing the Miss Universe pageant. Sinbad seemed a perfectly nice guy, and in the Compass Rose restaurant at the Nantucket airport he bought me and my copilot chicken sandwiches, asking us for advice on what kind of airplane he should buy. He wanted a small jet, he told us, that he could learn to fly himself. We told him to invest in a Cessna Citation — a twin-engine executive jet. I don’t know if this was the best advice, but I was making about thirteen grand a year at the time, and would have said anything for a chicken sandwich.

The great New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson was killed at the controls of a Cessna Citation in 1979, but I don’t think we mentioned this to Sinbad.

Would you eat a chicken sandwich with this man?

Would you eat a chicken sandwich with this man?

Okay we’re almost done.

A couple of years ago I had Anthony Bourdain on my plane (Shannon, Ireland, to New York). It was my duty, I felt, to let Mr. Bourdain know that my new book, scheduled for release that coming spring, was being published under the not-at-all derivative title of “Cockpit Confidential” — a more or less direct ripoff of Bourdain’s famous “Kitchen Confidential.” So I went up to him and told him.

He laughed. I guess that meant it was okay.

 
 

Portions of this story appeared originally in the online magazine Salon in 2004.

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25 Responses to “How Ya Doin’, Mister Vice President?”
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  1. Rais says:

    Some years ago I flew on a scheduled service on a Metroliner from Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory to Dili, Timor Leste. We knew it was going to be different when the pilot gave us our safety talk before boarding and warned us to use the toilet in the terminal before boarding if we thought we’d need it, there being no toilet on the plane on this international flight. Cabin service was two buckets at the bottom of the plane steps, one containing water bottles and the other containing packets of snack foods. Most of the flight is over water until you cross the Timor coast and fly over mountains. The flight was uneventful but memorable.

  2. paul says:

    “1994. Logan again, and I’m in the captain’s seat of a Northwest Airlink 19-seater”
    Substitute NW Airlink with a competitor, and you could be talking about me.
    Never once had a future or past presidential candidate on board, as you obviously had that marked cornered.

  3. Mark Dixon says:

    Hi,

    Thank you for the respectful and informative reply; a rare occurrence in this brave new world of unfettered trolling. I found this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_present to describe this writing style, as well.

    I have the utmost respect for Patrick, and all the work he does to create and maintain this website. I thoroughly enjoy the articles, and find myself nodding in agreement when reading about contentious subjects, such as security theater at airports or passengers who cannot bear to be parted with their dirty underwear in the event of an emergency.

    I have an “excuse” for my pedantry: I’m English ( as in born and raised in England, now living blissfully in California ), and the cinematic present tense over the pond is mostly associated with folks that don’t have the brainpower to use more than one tense, hence my earlier analogy to a certain stereotypical sports personality.

  4. Anonymous says:

    To Mark, about grammar and style (very respectfully!):

    I loved this column too. I just want to say that what you’re addressing has to do with style, as opposed to the grammar and spelling admonishment. Patrick uses what’s sometimes called the cinematic present (and there’s a literary present tense associated with, e.g., story-telling essays) only in his two longest anecdotes, which form the central portion of his narrative. It would be awkward writing if he switched between past and present within anecdotes, but he didn’t. This is an accepted style for short stories, essays and so on; and it creates a sense of immediacy.

    Yes, you’re entitled to not like a given writing style. But you can see people here are having a good time telling their stories—addressing the substance, not the form, of the column. I thought it was very engaging and effective.

  5. Mike says:

    So you’re the reason Hillary Clinton lost the election.

  6. Speed says:

    Alex wrote, “Speaks something to the 757, doesn’t it? Not only is it arguably one of the best planes ever built, it literally carries candidates to the White House.”

    And continues to do so after they’re there.

    The Boeing C-32 [a modified 757 which is most commonly used as the Vice President’s transport] aircraft, under the call sign Air Force One, has been used to transport the president when smaller airports cannot handle the 747-derived VC-25s.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_Force_Two

  7. UncleStu says:

    Upvote for Bob Seger.

  8. JackSullivan says:

    The Metroliner is the most successful device ever invented for turning fossil fuel into noise. Great article!

  9. UncleStu says:

    “but I was making about thirteen grand a year at the time, and would have said anything for a chicken sandwich.”

    Laughed out loud at that one.

    Also, been there – felt that way.

    Regards, Patrick

  10. Mark says:

    Loved the article, disliked intensely the choice of present tense. As it’s pervasive, I assume you chose this style on purpose for “readability”. Unfortunately, it comes across like a linebacker giving a post-game interview.

    Ironically, the section where we enter our comment text has the warning, “Watch your spelling and grammar. Poorly written posts will be deleted!”.

    And remember folks, I am entitled to an opinion. It’s what makes America “great”, which is satire by the way. So please rethink the hateful replies before launching yourself at the keyboard. Thanks in advance.

  11. Alex says:

    Fun fact…did you know that since 2000, possibly even further back, every winning presidential candidate (excluding incumbents, of course) has used a 757 as their campaign plane?

    Donald Trump: 752
    Barack Obama: 752
    George W. Bush: 752
    Bill Clinton: ?

    Hillary Clinton: 738
    Mitt Romney: MD83
    John McCain: 734
    Al Gore: 752*

    *PW-powered. All of the winners’ aircraft had RB-211’s. Want to win? Go with the Rolls…

    Speaks something to the 757, doesn’t it? Not only is it arguably one of the best planes ever built, it literally carries candidates to the White House.

    • Patrick says:

      Great post, Alex, thanks. As to the engine issue, though, you’re going with the assumption that George W’s Rolls-powered 757 was indeed the winner over Al Gore’s Pratt-powered version. That may or may not be true. Alas, the Supreme Court didn’t allow us to know for sure!

  12. Rod says:

    I once stood at a urinal next to Tommy Douglas. (You’d have to be a Canadian over 60 to have even the slightest chance of being impressed by that.)
    In other news, two friends of mine took a very early flight from Montreal to NYC on 911. They serenely sailed past the twin towers, about 45 minutes before the first one was hit, then landed at La Guardia. When they got out of the airport they found themselves standing next to the then Mrs Trump (whichever one that was).
    All this reminds me of the Monty Python book containing advice on how to act if you meet the Pope, the Queen, etc. Here’s an example of what NOT to say to the Queen:
    — Commoner: Pardon me, could you help me change this tyre?
    — Queen: Of course not. I’m the Queen.
    — Commoner: You are? You certainly don’t look the way you do on the stamps.

  13. Alan Dahl says:

    I was a delegate at the DNC convention in Boston in 2004. I flew home to Seattle on Northwest. On our flight to Minneapolis I notice that this guy up in first class spends 30 minutes or so standing in the aisle to someone else. He looked vaguely familiar and it took me a while to figure out it was former VP Mondale. The FA confirmed that and said that the person he had been talking too for so long was George McGovern! Now they weren’t the only political celebrities I saw that week of course (that was Obama’s first big moment) but it was the most unexpected.

    As an aside I saw President Ford speak in ’76 and tried to get close enough to shake his hand but failed. However a friend later sent me a presumably wire photo from his hometown paper and you can clearly see only two people in it, Ford and myself! Thanks to the nameless photographer for the only photo (so far) of me and a President!

  14. JamesP says:

    Fun stuff and amazing coincidences!

    My only airline celebrity was at LAX, arriving from Philly via Detroit. I was at the baggage claim, and Bob Seger was in the crowd around our carousel. An announcement came over the PA that there was a carousel change for our flight and the crowd started moving away. He didn’t hear it, so I waved and said, “Hi, Bob, they moved us over to Carousel 7 (or whatever it was).” He smiled and said “Oh thanks, man, I appreciate it.” It was kind of a bitch of a flight so I didn’t bother him for a photo or autograph.

  15. MW says:

    Chelsea Clinton still has the option to run as a Republican.

  16. Tod Davis says:

    I wouldn’t be bragging about flying Kanye West safely

  17. Speed says:

    Northwest Airlines (remember them?) 727 (remember them?) from Washington National (before the name change) to Cleveland. US Senator Howard Metzenbaum and an aid were on board. Ten minutes after departure we returned to DCA after shutting one engine down due to low oil pressure.

    Passengers deplaned. The Metzenbaum aid said loudly that the delay wouldn’t be long because there was a US Senator on board. As if.

    Inside the men’s room I said “Hello” to the senator. Our hands were full so we didn’t shake. Hands.

    Winter night flight from Boston to Cleveland. Peter Lynch was sitting up front. Several of us asked the stewardess if she would ask Mr. Lynch to autograph our business cards.

    “Buy high. Sell higher. Peter Lynch” I still have the card.

  18. JD says:

    Why, oh why Patrick, do I see no other than the pointy, ass-heavy, swept, beautiful n’ sexy Boeing 727 as ‘THE lawn dart’ aircraft?* The tri-engine and T-tail making for a most arrow-like silhouette – and a grown man shouldn’t be so in love with those gorgeous unfolding wings. Art, I say!
    I will honor the Metroliner as lawn-darty too …now. And the 727 can now be a ruthless bird of prey instead.

    (*the old-school and ever-reckless skull piercing Jarts.)

  19. I was once on a flight with El Al from Tel Aviv to Munich. Security was much tighter than usual and we could only board the plane from the rear door. First and economy classes were cordoned off.

    When the plane was ready for take-off, the pilot announced that we had the Israeli President on board. I was impressed that he took a regular El Al flight and didn’t even book the whole plane.

    We were accompanied by two fighter jets.

  20. Carole says:

    Forgot to say, I really love your columns!

  21. Carole says:

    I Bowled Mr. Dukakis Over– at the University where I was a student and he was a visiting professor. It was in a hallway of the Political Science building (you knew it wouldn’t be in the Marketing hallway, right?). I was running my usual right on time, meaning there were about 24 seconds left before the deadline for the paper I was waving around (to make sure the ink was dry) was due. How he didn’t see me, I’ll never know, but he didn’t. Sheer determination kept me on my feet. He wasn’t so lucky. When I think back on it, I’m kinda sorry I couldn’t stick around and give him a hand with collecting his papers and belongings but hey, he wasn’t my professor with the deadline. When I came back out of the office, he (and his stuff) was gone, so I assumed all was well. By the way, I had four seconds to spare, according to the clock on the wall in the office.

  22. ExpatDanBKK says:

    I love and can relate to the “how ya doin’?” thing.

    Years ago, I was a professional powerboat racer living in Dubai. I am a double-degreed engineer, but I was just paid to work the sticks (throttle-man) not do any work on the equipment. But we were trying some m=new stuff I had a hand in designing and our chief mech was having issues.

    So I was upside down in the bilge helping him out, looking like I had been there for a week.

    We were in Jordan. Someone tugs on my shoe — as I said, I was upside down in the bilge. It was our PR lady. I drag myself out to see what’s the problem, after a few colorful words basically saying “go away, I’m busy!”

    She introduces me to a short bald fellow in a nice suit, surrounded by an entourage of military-looking types in civilian garb.

    “I’d like to introduce you to King Hussein…”

    Now, this is a guy whom I admired and really wanted to meet. But I was in full “single-minded engineer problem solving” mode, so I was not at my most gregarious. So to speak.

    My response? I wiped the oil off my hand shook his hand and said: “So, you the king, eh? Nice to meet you. Sorry, I’m busy now and cannot talk as I have to fix this so we can win your race.” Then I dove back in the bilge.

    DOAH!

    NOT my best moment in public relations. But happily, we DID win our class and I got a second chance, as he presented the trophy. He was most gracious and (non-miked) he took the time to commended me on my dedication to the team/sport and that he understood my curtness before being whisked away by his handlers as he also had a background in engineering and was a Navy pilot as I had been, so he understood.

    I guess that’s a win-win, but would have loved to have had a even couple minute conversation with him. He was an amazing person IMHO with what he did for his country.

    Oh well….

  23. Martin says:

    My tragic Al Gore/ aviation story:

    After a few years of on-again/ off-again flight training, I was finally ready to solo. The day arrived: perfect weather, I had a couple of flexible hours in the afternoon, the Cherokee was available, and my instructor had the time for the check-ride and sign-off.

    I motor out to Tweed-New Haven. Park at the general aviation building. Saunter in. Smile at my flight instructor.

    “Sorry,” he says.

    I look at him quizzically. “What’s wrong?”

    “Too much cross wind for you on the active. You need to fly from Runway 32, but that’s closed.”

    “Closed?”, I ask.

    “Yep,” he answers. “They’ve parked Air Force 2 on it.”

    Seems Al Gore had come to town to give a talk at Yale. And I wasn’t flying anywhere.

    PS 1. I finally soloed the next week. It was magnificent.

    PS 2. If you ever do your column on airport food, my vote for number one is Incheon. Korean food like you’d expect to eat at a great local establishment, at prices you’d expect to pay in a local restaurant.

    PS 3. Nominee for worst airport food: Otopeni in Bucharest. Scratch that, never actually eaten there – it’s really my nominee for most overpriced airport food, to the extent that you look at the options, look at your wallet, and decide you can certainly wait until wherever you’re flying to.

    PS4. Do have plans to get your blog back into full swing? Been checking from time to time since you left Salon – glad to see some new columns!