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. Try to figure it out:

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. “Here,” I say. “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 daughter to mother, 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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