Commentary: The story that won't die, but should
Every November, as the leaves begin to fall in the nation’s capital, my inbox begins filling up with copies of an article I wrote in early 2009. If prior years are any indication, the same thing will happen again next March.
The emails all ask variations of the same questions: Did you write this? Is it true? Where did you get it? And how come CNN and The New York Times didn’t have the story?
Since the story carried my photo and my byline (in satisfyingly large type, if I do say so myself) the discerning, eagle-eyed reader could quickly figure out that yes, indeed, I was the author of the story.
The tipoff is the head shot. If I were playing games with the readers, I would have picked a far more flattering photo, not that any of these exist since I’m sort of the standard-issue white male. I’m somewhat relieved to see that the glasses I was wearing have started to come back in style.
Yes, the story is true. My company considers inventing facts a firing offense, and after 45 years I’m still on the payroll. I would like to attribute that longevity to dedication and loyalty, but the simple fact is I don’t know how to do anything else.
And in Washington we don’t have to make up facts; we have politicians to do it for us.
I regularly troll the British press for interesting and offbeat stories. Their papers were full of newly elected President Barack Obama’s preparations to attend the G-20, his first overseas trip as leader of the free world.
In Washington I episodically covered the White House and, like most of the capital press corps, had grown blasé at the immense and expensive preparations it takes to move an American president from one place to the next. The British media were absolutely mesmerized.
For a three-day visit, Obama traveled with an entourage of 500, including 200 Secret Service agents, a team of six doctors, four speechwriters, the White House chef and kitchen staff, 12 teleprompters, the presidential helicopter, Marine One (plus decoys), and his armored limousine, known by his staff as “The Beast.”
The British should not have been awed by this massive procession because when they ruled India every summer from 1863 on they moved the entire Indian government from the sweltering plains of Calcutta to Shimla, a cool, pine-scented station high in the mountains. To speed the process, they built a special railway with 806 bridges and 103 tunnels, but you can do that kind of thing when you’re a colonial power.
My correspondents took the story as evidence of Obama’s overweening sense of entitlement, love of luxury and lofty disregard for wise use of the taxpayers’ money. I sensed from their tone he could have walked across the Atlantic and they would have derided him as a showoff.
I tried to explain that past a certain point a presidential trip is pretty much out of the president’s hands. His staff and the federal agencies battle to be included in these trips, whether they’re needed or not. It’s a big status thing.
The security people were cautious to a fault because not only was he a brand-new president and this was his first big trip but he was African-American and the recipient of truly ugly threats.
And, I pointed out in answering my Obama-hating correspondents, previous presidents traveled with entourages of similar size. The standard of White House excess had been set by the Reagans, who traveled with their own bed.
As to why CNN and The New York Times didn’t use the story, I can only guess it’s because I don’t work for them.