How Ya Doin’, Mister Vice President?

Politicians, planes, and pilot black magic.

UPDATE: November 5, 2020

Well, I guess either the curse has been broken, or the degrees of separation rule doesn’t apply.

In the meantime, the electorate has spoken. Sort of.

 

October 31, 2020

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. On one of those occasions, 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.

What am I talking about? Here 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 reckons. 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.

And it maybe gets worse. If we consider degrees of separation, I can take blame for the election of Donald Trump as well, because in 2012 I 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 from the overhead locker 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. And four years later her mother, our candidate number seven on my accidental hit list, would run for President and fail.

Will there be a number eight?

I hate having to mention this, but in 2018 I was on a layover in San Francisco. It was the day of the annual Pride Parade, which I found myself watching from a street corner at the foot of my hotel. Countless contingents rode past aboard floats and cars. One of those cars was a festively adorned convertible, in the back seat of which, waving to the crowd, sat Kamala Harris.

If my curse could be spread from mother to daughter, couldn’t it just to easily jump from running mate to running mate?

How’s that for some dark serendipity?

And no, I have never seen or met a Republican candidate for President, Vice President, or their offspring nor Whatever dreary karma I’m lugging around, it’s viciously partisan. If the GOP was smart, it might hire me and shuttle me around to their opponent’s rallies.

 

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

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35 Responses to “How Ya Doin’, Mister Vice President?”
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  1. Brian Richard Allen says:

    …. If my curse could be spread from mother to daughter, couldn’t it just to easily jump from running mate to running mate ….

    From Captain Smith’s lips, please, Dear Lord, to Your Ear!

  2. Angela says:

    I do hope we hold strong here and break your curse but the pet that made me laugh out loud is riding how you were riding your bike down to Harvard Square/Cambridge to attempt to meet girls. Was that the place to go back in the day? That’s where my friends and I went to meet boys! Was there some kind of announcement? I never went during commencement though. I hope you had better luck than I did.

  3. Andrea Daniel says:

    Apropos of your political run-ins – Not that many years ago, when Jerry Brown was California’s Governor for the second time, he and his wife, Anne Gust Brown were on the same Southwest flight as I was. Yes, Southwest. They waited with their C ticket while those ahead boarded. No fuss. No pulling rank. No private plane.

  4. Dave says:

    I was at the Claremont hotel in the Berkeley hills in the early 90’s – I walked by a bank of pay phones (!) and saw Newt Gingrich sitting and talking. As I passed (managing to control myself and neither say anything nor smack him) I heard him saying “well…that’s not exactly I Love you, is it now?”

    Also, in 2008 I had the distinct honor of drumming on a three week UK tour with DK’s when DJ Peligro wasn’t available, it’s a blast playing those songs.

    Glad to see that your curse appears to be done with, though it’s putting up a fight.

  5. Lurk says:

    Looks like your curse may no longer be effective.

    And, thank you for the reminder, when I get back home I’m going to dig out my ancient copy of, “California Uber Alles” and play it L O U D. That’ll teach all the local kiddiewinks what *proper* music sounds like. Harrumph! 😀

  6. Mark Maslowski says:

    You’re pretty consistent. Senator Harris also ran for President and lost. The only person you’ve mentioned who also ran for Vice President was Gore and he won twice! I’ll take your mojo as a good sign!

  7. Bruce says:

    Patrick!

    It’s not too late!

    Go and stand near Donald Trump! He’s probably in DC: get on a plane and go there! Tell him a lame joke or something. Anything.

    NOW!!!!

    Use your curse powers for good, for once!

  8. Earl Boebert says:

    My only brush with celebrity was getting shoved out of the Hertz line at Washington National by Dan Rather, the Sunday after the Watergate Saturday Night Massacre. I was flying in for an early Monday meeting at the Pentagon, had a lot on my mind, and didn’t make an issue of it.

    I couldn’t figure out why so many people were leaving D.C. that day, or why Rather was in such a desperate hurry to get a car. Then I saw the front page of the Post at a news stand.

  9. Art Knight says:

    Nothing more to say, but you are a great writer!

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. Mike says:

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

  15. 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

  16. UncleStu says:

    Upvote for Bob Seger.

  17. JackSullivan says:

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

  18. 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

  19. 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.

  20. 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!

  21. 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.

  22. 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!

  23. 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.

  24. MW says:

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

  25. Tod Davis says:

    I wouldn’t be bragging about flying Kanye West safely

  26. 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.

  27. 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.)

  28. 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.

  29. Carole says:

    Forgot to say, I really love your columns!

  30. 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.

  31. 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….

  32. 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!