"My last flight on the plane, guys very sad." It was Andrew H. Card Jr., the outgoing White House Chief of Staff, popping his head into the press cabin at the back of Air Force One on Tuesday night, toward the end of the flight back to Andrews Air Force Base after a long day of Medicare and political events in Missouri and Iowa. He startled the journalists, some of whom were dozing or watching the movie Fun with Dick and Jane.
Up front, President Bush, the traveling staff, some Secret Service agents and a few crew members had gathered in the conference room for cake and slides to mark Card's final flight as "The Chief." Joshua B. Bolten, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, officially takes over Saturday.
Card had an emotional message for the crowd in the conference room: It is hard to get a job at the White House, but it is even harder to leave. Some people dabbed their eyes. "Secretary Card," as he is known around the Administration, often said in speeches, "It is unbelievable to be able to say, 'Good morning, Mr. President' every day that he comes into The Oval Office." On Thursday, Card will do it for the last time, before the Bush family heads to Camp David for Easter.
The Card party cut into a huge coconut cake and watched a slide show that White House photographer Eric Draper had assembled to commemorate Card's five-plus years in the West Wing, the second longest any Chief of Staff has served. The meal for the two-hour flight from Des Moines was chicken Marsala and tomato cucumber salad. The Air Force One crew presented Card with a jacket and a window from the plane inscribed with his name as an expression of gratitude. Card, a frequent guest at Camp David and a member of the "Hundred Degree Club" of hot-weather runners at Bush's ranch, talked about what a privilege it was to work in the White House. He walked around the conference room and thanked everyone, then strolled through the plane to thank the crew and other staff and agents.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said after getting off the plane, "It was an emotional day. This was his swan-song trip."
Everyone in the White House capitalizes the "P" when they write "the President," but Card is one of the few who also capitalized "The." The Chief made humility his calling card, telling audiences that he came to work every day hoping not to be pinched in case it was just a dream. He is conscious, however, of the role he has played in history. Three years ago, he told the annual banquet of the Federalist Society about traveling with the President in Florida on Sept. 11, 2001, when initial reports suggested a small twin-engine plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. "What a horrible accident; the pilot must have had a heart attack or something," the President had said to Card. Later, while Bush was inside a school classroom, Card learned that it looked like a jet liner, and that there was a second plane. "I stood at the door and wondered, If I were President, would I want to know that?" Card recalled. "The answer is obvious. The challenge of how to tell the President became the burden of the moment. He was with students in front of a press corps. So I chose to state two facts and then make one editorial comment. I walked into the classroom, went up to the President's right ear, and bent down and said, 'A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.' I stepped back from the President. I did not want to invite a question or a debate."
The Chief showed his sense of humor on an "Ask the White House" Web chat in 2004 when he was asked if he had picked the tie the President had worn on TV a few nights before. His reply: "No !! (All I can say is that Mrs. Bush was not here that day.)" Asked about the role of prayer in his management style, Card typed: "I feel very blessed to work for our President. I do pray and know that others pray for me too."
Card, 58, sat in the jump seat of the cockpit of the Boeing 747-200B for the landing. At 8:50 p.m., just after Air Force One touched down, Card hustled briskly down the front steps carrying a massive black briefcase, caught up to the President on the Tarmac, and walked him to the waiting Marine One chopper. Three minutes later, they flew off into the night.