Flying on Air Force One With the Obamas

How does America’s first family behave at 60,000 feet? Very graciously, our columnist discovers.

How does America’s first family behave at 30,000 feet? Very graciously, our columnist discovers.

Flying on Air Force One with America’s new first family feels much like popping over for pizza.

Natural, casual, warm.

What did I once write of the president and Michelle? Mr. Principal and Mrs. Math Teacher? Well. We’re all different things on different days in different settings. On this day—last Friday—the Obamas were attentive and gracious to five columnists invited to travel with them from Washington to Chicago, where the first family was spending the long weekend. (The others were Clarence Page, Ron Brownstein, E.J. Dionne and Bob Herbert.)

Either Obama hasn’t figured out yet that he’s the boss or, quite possibly, he doesn’t care.

Although I’ve traveled on Air Force One before with President George W. Bush—as well as separately with Mrs. Bush to the Middle East—this trip was special. Not only was it the first journey home for the new president since he assumed office, but the entire Obama family was aboard. In fact, our scheduled 4 p.m. departure time was set around the girls’ getting out of school.

We five columnists were already seated in cushy chairs in a guest “parlor,” when the first daughters entered unannounced and, at first glance, unescorted. There was just, rather suddenly, Malia—all smiles and clearly used to cutting a swath wherever she goes. Then came another burst of light named Sasha.

You know they’re adorable. You’ve seen a thousand pictures and video clips. Forget all that. This is when you need Spanish so that you can add the absolute superlative -isima to the end of adorable. They are that adorable. Uninhibited and guileless, they seemed utterly at ease with five strangers— especially, may I say, with the sole female, who just happened to have a little green Ugly Doll hanging from her purple purse, very similar to one spotted several weeks ago on Sasha’s book bag.

The guys may talk football, leaving some women reporters clueless, but guys don’t know jack about the Ugly Doll fashion phenom begun by one Sasha Obama several weeks ago. I wouldn’t call my Ugly Doll “bait” exactly, but I might call it strategy. As a conversation starter, it worked.

We had the girls to ourselves for only a few moments before Mom, Dad and Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, joined us. Everyone stood, smiled, greeted, shook hands, smiled—the usual drill when host and hostess greet their guests. This had somewhat the feel of an extra-polite diplomatic meeting as the adult Obamas totaled 15 handshakes. I half-expected us to fold our hands and begin bowing.

Impressions: I had met Obama before he became president, but not Michelle. I was struck by her warmth and a sense that she has no need to be the center of attention. (This cannot be said of all first ladies.) Her mother was similarly warm, if a bit shy. Why wouldn’t she be? Although no stranger to her daughter’s and son-in-law’s public life, no sensible civilian would enter a room of columnists without wondering whether the staff doctor stocks antivenom. I was also struck by how lean and fit everyone is. The Obamas are thin people, a sight to behold in the age of obesity.

Greetings accomplished, the Obamas disappeared into their section of the plane toward the front, while we settled in for takeoff. There is nothing unique about a presidential takeoff. An airplane is an airplane. Except! The flight attendants on Air Force One don’t nag you about stuffing every little thing under the seat in front of you. Your seat doesn’t have to be in the upright position, nor does your tray have to be in the locked position. I briefly considered walking around during takeoff, rather than repeating The Lord’s Prayer as I usually do, just to mock death because I probably could.

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Once we reached our cruising altitude, as they say, we were summoned to the conference room. The Obama ladies were nowhere in sight, presumably ensconced in private quarters we never saw. Obama, wearing white shirt and tie (sans presidential bomber jacket— too much drama?), again greeted us with yet another round of smiles and handshakes. At this point, I have lost count. We took our seats around the table—alpha dog positioning as one might expect—got out our notebooks, pens and tape recorders and…

“How are we going to run this thing?”

Eh? The president was asking us how we wanted to proceed. For the record, this is very un-Bush. At several meetings with the former president, including a one-on-one interview aboard Air Force One, there was never any question about how we would proceed. Bush ran all shows. Either Obama hasn’t figured out yet that he’s the boss or, quite possibly, he doesn’t care. As a veteran White House correspondent suggested to me later, “Maybe he knows he can handle whatever we toss his way.”

I’ve written about the interview for my regular syndicated column, so I won’t belabor it here. Suffice to say, we focused on the stimulus bill that Obama signed Tuesday in Denver. As someone who has written both favorably and critically about the president, most recently focusing on his greenness and political inexperience, I was curious to gain whatever insights one can from a closer encounter.

What struck me most was his immense calm. I kept looking for fissures in the façade, some signal that the cool cat is a defense mechanism or some tactical ploy to deflect or defuse an opponent. Nary a crack. You may as well try to find the Dalai Lama’s Achilles heel. I suspect that if you cut Obama open, you’d find a little Buddha sitting inside, smiling.

Before a crowd of thousands, Obama the Orator is a performer. In a small room with a few journalists, he is a teacher, mindful that his students are trying to write down what he says. He speaks slowly. I took this as an act of consideration and thanked him for it. Even though we were promised a transcript—and though tape recorders cluttered the table—we were all still scribbling furiously. It is a habit of old reporters and, besides, one never knows.

Except for a few worthy quotes, not much new surfaced during the interview and the trip was otherwise gloriously uneventful. But one thing did emerge with greater clarity. Quality. If one judges people in part by the way they and their family comport themselves—and we all do—then the verdict is clear. The Obamas are the family for which less-fortunate children wish upon stars.

The Return Trip

Yes, yes, I hear you. Air Force One. Big deal. Sucking up to the prez. Piffle. Know this, my fellow Americans: The romance ends on the tarmac. Once we landed in Chicago, the Obamas descended the red-carpeted front stairs to their awaiting helicopter and we unworthy wretches dropped from the belly of the beast to the pavement and our waiting… nada. Zip! No, actually, a Zipcar would have been delightful.

As the Obamas hopped on Marine One and swooped over the city to their old neighborhood, we stood shivering and wondering how to get to O’Hare’s terminal and a commercial flight back home. That was around 5:30ish and quite coldish. Numb from wind chill, we finally hitched a ride with a nice fellow who almost changed his mind once he realized we were media and not presidential entourage.

Alas, he dropped us off in plenty of time to begin the O’Hare Roulette. As my traveling companion, Ron Brownstein said, “It’s not a problem flying out of O’Hare as long as you’re not picky about where you go. At some point, a plane will go somewhere.”

We waited through mechanical problems and a canceled flight; we boarded and then deplaned; we reboarded a new plane—this time with an entire eighth-grade class heading to Washington for the weekend! Just three hours late. My two 13-year-old seatmates were mesmerized by tales of Air Force One, I tell you.

The glamour of it all.

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and author of Save the Males.