Hillary Clinton celebrated her 50th birthday with a private party at the Chicago Cultural Center in October,1997. Chicago transplants working in the Clinton Administration were not only invited to the party, but also to fly with her and Bill and their guests aboard Air Force One from Washington.
Per instructions, I joined my fellow Chicagoans in the 1950’s era lounge at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington a few hours prior to the scheduled take-off. Boarding the plane in a heightened mood we located our assigned seats in the guest section.
The Clinton friends arrived with the President and First Lady in the motorcade from the White House. Senator Barbara Boxer sat down next to me. Ted Danson and Mary Steenbergen sat in the two seats facing us. I sent a numeric “thank you” text to my friend in the White House who had compiled the plane manifest and assigned the seats.
Mary Steenbergen is an old friend of the Clintons. She and Ted had married about a year before. Ted looked nervous and self-conscious. I had read he had a hair transplant or plugs or something and I couldn’t take my eyes off his scalp. Mary chatted away, making introductions and jokes and we all relaxed. As soon as we were in the air, Bill Clinton, of course, sauntered back to the guest section. He introduced me to the two movie stars, then told them that I had worked in the campaign in Little Rock. They acted impressed. I felt impressive.
We landed on the military tarmac at O’Hare Field in 39 degree rain and rode downtown in the President’s motorcade. I rushed to the makeshift staff room to use a secure landline because cell phone coverage failed inside the 1890’s cement landmark. I needed to call my son at my father’s bedside phone at Northwestern Hospital.
“He just died,” Joe said.
I hadn’t seen my father for about five years, ever since he started trying to swindle my friends and former employers.
“Do you want to see him?”
“No. I’ll call you later.”
I looked at the only other person in the room—a Secret Service agent I didn’t know.
“My father just died. He’s in a hospital 5 blocks down the street.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Are you leaving?”
I wandered down the hallway to Preston Bradley Hall, grabbed a Diet Coke and walked around in a daze nodding to friends. I found Bob Sirott, who had a morning TV news show at the time. Bob and I had arranged to talk off the record about what it was like to ride on Air Force One. I gave him a box of M&M’s imprinted with the aircraft’s seal and described the inside of the plane and the food.
I left early to overnight at Joe’s. He told me some bits and pieces about my father’s last moments.
Up in the air the next morning on a United flight back to Washington, the cumulus heaven below held me in contemplation. My mantra: thank God he’s dead.