Here are a few random last–not particularly consequential–observations from last week’s trip with Don Rumsfeld, which ended up taking us from Oman, to Afghanistan, to Azerbaijan, to Ukraine, and finally to Russia.
Perhaps the most frequently asked question on one of these trips is “What time is it here?” Life becomes a disorienting dash from plane to shuttle bus to bus to hotel to bus to shuttle bus to plane and so on. By the end, a ten-hour flight from St. Petersburg to Andrews, starting at noon Russian time, seemed a piece of cake, positively restful.
The fear is getting left behind. Rumsfeld waits for no one, and I was told the story of the Washington Post reporter who had been left on an earlier trip somewhere in Central Asia, I believe. The promptness of this whole operation was a little scary. Every day starts with a “bag drag,” when you take your checked bag up to a room by a certain time so it can make it onto the plane that day. One day the bag drag was NLT (no later than) 8 A.M., a late start. Another reporter and I got our bags to the room by about 8:01 and they were literally scooping up the last of the bags to take them to the plane. “Woooh–you guys are really cutting it close,” someone said. I’m used to a roughly 15-minute cushion applying to any specified meeting time or deadline–so this was a frightening way to live.
BEAT THE PRESS
Rumsfeld loved taking darkly humorous jabs at the press. When a bad storm in Ukraine kept us from trying to fly there one night and kept us in Azerbaijan for an extended stay, he said, “This is my plan. We’re sending the reporters ahead to Ukraine and I’m going to stay here.” Some reporters joked that when we helicoptered in a little convoy from Kabul to Jalalabad (J-Bad for those in the know), the helicopter full of reporters was only there to provide a heat-signature decoy for Rumsfeld’s helicopter. One reporter said Rumsfeld really would feel badly if we got shot down. Another countered, Yeah, because it would knock him off schedule.
For such a tough guy, Rumsfeld can turn on the charm like a pair of high beams. He had a dinner with his Russian counterpart Sergei Ivanov to which a handful of American and Russian journalists were invited (unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them). I heard afterward that a woman Russian journalist who was seated next to Rumsfeld all night came up to the American reporters afterward and said, “I love your Defense secretary.”
THAT RUMSFELD RIBBING
He is a merciless teaser. One reporter said at one point, “You know, it’s actually better not to be seated near him sometimes, so you don’t become such a target.” Rumsfeld saw the line I had written near the top of my piece about his press briefing on the way over, about him not being as tall as I expected, and that came up over and over again. For a while it was so bad I might as well have been with the BBC!
So we spent two nights in Baku. On nearly every other corner in the city there was a billboard with a picture of the father (former president Gaider Aliev) of the current president. A former Communist party boss, this billboard-daddy is not a distinguished-looking or particularly memorable man. It’s as if a 50-something-year-old banker were picked out at random and plastered throughout the city. There were two photos of him as far as I can tell–one sitting and one standing. But the backgrounds change to create different moods: a flag background to emphasize patriotism, a sunny background to emphasize optimism, and–my favorite–a version of him in a tuxedo with four sort of hip-looking young people in the background to emphasize, I suppose, his light-hearted, partying nature. You can probably tell how un-sophisticated Azerbaijan political culture is by these billboards–a government in most other places in the world would be laughed out of office for this sort of thing, just the sheer un-coolness of it all.
One of the least appealing parts of being a beat reporter who does this sort of trip all the time must be the sheer amount of waiting. In Ukraine, we waited in the lobby of a hotel for about two hours for a Rumsfeld press conference with their defense minister to begin. Then we walked to the site of the presser, but they held us at the gate for 15 minutes or so, to wait so we could go in together with the Ukrainian press. Then we walked into the compound and waited in the driveway for 40 minutes or so. Then we waited directly outside the room for another five minutes. Then the press conference started and nothing too important was said, and it was into the bus for another round of dashing around and waiting.
Some of our travel from city to city was in a C-17. It’s like a hollowed-out airplane, or an airplane with no walls so you can see all the wires and other innards. There’s a huge empty space for a tank or helicopter in the middle of the plane, while all of us sit in little fold-up seats along the sides (at least there’s lots of legroom). When there is a dignitary like Rumsfeld they have a camper–the silver bullet–strapped into the middle of it, where he has private space for work and rest. Everyone wears earplugs on these planes. Someone walks around and hands them out prior to the flight. If you are worried about being trapped by a chatty row-mate on a flight, this is the plane for you, since it’s difficult to hear anything anyone says. I kind of enjoyed traveling in the thing, but I suppose the novelty would wear off pretty quickly.
I was not looking forward to going to Russia, having been to Moscow once in the mid-1990s and enjoyed only the vodka, caviar, and an opportunity to visit with Elena Bonner. But St. Petersburg is truly gorgeous–a kind of Russian Paris.
RUMMY UP CLOSE
He’s every bit as impressive as he seems from a distance. If we had a Rumsfeld leading every important department in government, someone with his intelligence, imagination, passion, and willingness to shake up a bureaucracy, American government would be much better for it.
It was a fun and interesting trip, but when we got back to Andrews, I said what I always say after going overseas, “Man, it’s nice to be back in America.”