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 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.
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.