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The Presidential Gig
Earlier, in his private lounge, which is just behind the bedroom with the twin beds with blue blankets, complete with Presidential Seal, we'd talked of personal stuff. I'd been asking about the laundry arrangements. How do they get the presidential shirts, socks, undies, etc., done on this thing? I'm used to rock-'n'-roll tours where there's a washing machine and dryers set up backstage, but this is gigging on a whole other level. At least 20 military transporters haul presidential necessities around the planet. At our hotel in Ghana, the porter carrying my bag said they had thrown out all the other guests because "the President of the World was coming."
"Laundry, huh?" the President mused. "Y'know, I've never asked that. I usually just wear the same thing all day, but if I need to change, there's always a room I can go to. Laundry, huh? Is this the interview, Geldof? It's certainly a different technique!" He's showing me around because I've asked if I can get Air Force One stuff to bring home to the kids. "Hey guys, get Geldof the links and pins and stuff. And the M&M's. Didja know I got my own presidential M&M's?" Wow. "Yeah, cool, right? They'll love 'em." They did. They're in a presidential box with his autograph on them. The Queen doesn't have that. Or the Pope. And I muse later from Car 25 in the 33-car motorcade that there are probably only three people in the world who can bring crowds like this out onto the street the Queen, the Pope and the President of the United States, and only one's a politician. "Jed," the President says to the man doing the ironing between the twin beds. "How do we do the laundry on this thing?" "We use hotels, sir." Ah.
Nobody else gets beds. The exhausted Secret Service guys, the secretaries of state, the chief of staff, the assistants and advisers and the press pool attempt a fitful sleep in the gray-and-beige reclining seats. Some give up the unequal struggle and order dinner. Not fantastic food, with decentish wine served by nicely uniformed, friendly waiters.
Up front we're knocking back Cokes. The First Lady, elegant and composed, is reading with her legs tucked under her on the L-shaped sofa. The President throws himself into a chair in front of me and sprawls comfortably, Texas-style. He asks about growing up in Dublin. "Was it poor then?" Very. "Huh. What'd your dad do? Your mom?" We went through it. "How'd you and Bono meet up? You knew each other back then? What's his real name?"
I don't know how, but eventually we arrive at the great unspoken. "See, I believe we're in an ideological struggle with extremism," says the President. "These people prey on the hopeless. Hopelessness breeds terrorism. That's why this trip is a mission undertaken with the deepest sense of humanity, because those other folks will just use vulnerable people for evil. Like in Iraq."
I don't want to go there. I have my views and they're at odds with his, and I don't want to spoil the interview or be rude in the face of his hospitality. "Ah, look Mr. President. I don't want to do this really. We'll get distracted and I'm here to do Africa with you." "OK, but we got rid of tyranny." It sounded like the television Bush. It sounded too justificatory, and he doesn't ever have to justify his Africa policy. This is the person who has quadrupled aid to the poorest people on the planet. I was more comfortable with that. But his expression asked for agreement and sympathy, and I couldn't provide either.
"Mr. President, please. There are things you've done I could never possibly agree with and there are things I've done in my life that you would disapprove of, too. And that would make your hospitality awkward. The cost has been too much. History will play itself out." "I think history will prove me right," he shoots back. "Who knows," I say.
It wasn't awkward. It wasn't uncomfortable. He is convinced, like Tony Blair, that he made the right decision. "I'm comfortable with that decision," he says. But he can't be. The laws of unintended consequences would determine that. At one point I suggest that he will never be given credit for good policies, like those here in Africa, because many people view him "as a walking crime against humanity." He looks very hurt by that. And I'm sorry I said it, because he's a very likable fellow.
"C'mon, let's move next door and let Laura alone." "I spoke to Blair about you before I came on the plane." "Tony Blair? What'd he say?" "He said you don't see color. To remember that you employed the first black secretaries of state, that your worldview had changed since you began, and that Condi was a big influence with regard to Africa." "So you were a big influence on me," he says to Condi. "I don't think so ..." "Nah, I've always been like this." "But now you sound like a hippie, for God's sake," I say. He laughs.