To Russia With Bill: Oh, The Glamour, The Tuna

It's 11 p.m. Saturday in the dreary press room at Andrews Air Force Base, and we have been killing time for three hours. Some of us--about 20 in all--are in a semi-stupor as The Bodyguard drones from a TV. Cameramen and photographers are debating the relative merits of Gore-tex vs. Thinsulate and comparing outerwear they have bought for the Moscow winter. Finally, we get word President Clinton is on his way. The Secret Service dogs sniff our bags before we board Air Force One.

This is the glamorous life of a White House reporter: Hours of hurry-up-and-wait, then a burst of action. Clinton is about to embark on his nine-day European trip, and I'm in the pool of journalists joining him for the flight to Brussels. In the morning, nearly 200 reporters had left on the chartered press plane. It's the pool's job to share with them any news from aboard the Presidential aircraft.

In the usually fiercely competitive world of White House reporting, the pool is the big exception. Reporting passed on by the handful of journalists in the pool to the rest of the press corps is the main way the events of Presidential travel are covered. If you're never in the pool, you may go an entire trip without seeing the big guy.

Newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV networks are allowed one representative each. Photographers from one newspaper and one magazine shoot for all publications. The same goes for camera and sound crews. Because just a few magazines were covering Clinton's January trip, I rotated into the pool often. But there's a catch: Pool members are on the honor system not to withhold news for exclusive use.

JACKETLESS. Inside Air Force One, everything is a drab gray. It's almost like a flying office, complete with ergonomically correct seats, a typewriter, and two digital wall clocks, one set to Washington time, one to the time in the destination city. The newspaper representative and I are in the front row, facing a bare wall. There are no windows on our side. The kitchen is behind us. Ahead is the cabin with Secret Service agents, who walk around jacketless with their shoulder holsters and pistols in plain view. The President's quarters are located several cabins up, toward the cockpit.

Just as we settle into our seats, a press aide tells us the President is arriving. We run back down the stairs to cover this momentous event. The wind-chill factor is subzero. We watch on the tarmac as the Marine helicopter carrying the President lands at 11:20 p.m. Clinton wears no hat or gloves and is dressed in jeans and a brown bomber jacket--details we later note for posterity in our pool report.

For many reporters, Air Force One pool duty is to be avoided whenever possible. One big reason: The food is mediocre. The regular press plane is first-class all the way, with champagne flowing and multicourse meals. The Air Force One galley dishes up standard military grub. But how often does one get to fly with the President? Anyway, my tuna sandwich isn't bad. And, of course, there are the souvenirs--matchbooks and boxes of M&Ms adorned with the Presidential seal.

The overnight trip to Brussels is uneventful. The President has just returned from his mother's funeral, so he's in no mood to chat. On the ground in the morning, after prodigious digging, we find out that Clinton went to bed after meeting with National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty. He got about five-and-a-half hours' sleep. We note these factoids in our pool report. Then we watch the President, newly shaved, greet his Belgian hosts.

The highlight of my pool experiences comes four days later, in Moscow. The press plane arrives in the city at 4 a.m., after a stopover in Kiev for a meeting with Ukrainian President Leonid M. Kravchuk. I get to the Metropole Hotel at five and take a fast shower. I'm down in the lobby by 6:15 to meet the other members of my next pool. Most everybody else is fast asleep.

Our job is to "pre-position"--set up cameras and sound equipment--in St. George's Hall in the Kremlin for a 9 a.m. meeting between Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Our bus heads for the Kremlin in predawn darkness, but the guards won't let us enter. With only minutes to spare before the ceremony starts, the guardians relent. The American cameramen and photographers grumble that the Russians have the best positions. I take notes as the two men approach each other from opposite sides of the vast, ornate hall. Yeltsin is smiling, but Clinton's back is to the press. After brief remarks, the leaders shake hands with a row of officials observing the ceremony.

Despite the hours of boredom, only a totally jaded journalist would deny being somewhat thrilled at such a historic moment. Some details may not seem so momentous, but I am here to tell you that it was my pool in St. George's Hall that told the world that the usually sartorially resplendent Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, was wearing duck boots as he greeted the President of Russia.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.