Thursday, April 30, 2009

I hope they all came out okay.

On Day 98 of the Obama administration, something unremarkable yet remarkable happened. The government spent a couple hundred thousand more dollars. That’s incredibly small change compared to billions, I know, but still, someone should keep track of this, right? Not to mention, the recent expenditure didn’t create any jobs and it didn’t stimulate a thing, unless you count several thousand people in lower Manhattan on Tuesday. But not in a good way.

According to, a photo shoot involving Air Force One flying over lower Manhattan was not only ill-advised and poorly executed, it was costly. In fact, an Air Force spokesperson estimates this exercise cost $328,835. Yes, an additional government expense at a time when we have exactly no money to spend. Three hundred thousand dollars to take pictures of the most famous plane on the planet. As it flies low over the Manhattan skyline. That's the remarkable part.

If you need that figure broken down, we spent about $300,000 on Air Force One itself, which flew for about three hours, and another $28K each on the two fighter jets that accompanied it and flew for just under two hours each. It also includes fuel, ground equipment and crew, aircraft prep and ground maintenance.

Luckily for us, the President is a take charge kind of leader. He did what he has done a few times already in his first one hundred days. First he got furious, (or “incensed,” according to The New York Times), he told us he wasn’t informed, and then he apologized, and said it won’t happen again. I would hope that last bit goes without saying. I ask you: How many times do we need to take fresh new shots of Air Force One during one administration?

Turns out, fury was the feeling of the day. Obama was furious, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was furious, many people were furious. If I worked in Manhattan, I’d have been furious, too.

Here’s what confuses me. (Well, several things confuse me but we’ll take them one at a time.) The Bloomberg story calls this a "photo shoot," but also indicates that it was a “training session” for Air Force One personnel. They quoted White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs who described the incident as “two training missions that became in the end a picture mission.” The New York Times makes no reference at all to a supposed training session and in fact their headline refers to it as a “photo-op gone wrong.”

So which was it? A training session for a photographer to shoot the images or a military training session for the pilots who also happened to also have a photographer and all the appropriate equipment on hand? How could this one thing have turned in to the other? That makes no sense. It was one of them; not both of them.

And by the way, if you’re training pilots, do you need to do it over lower Manhattan? Isn’t that why we have Air Force bases and training facilities?
Never one to let mysteries like this go unchecked, the President has asked Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina to figure out and report back on “how the decision was made to conduct the flight.”

I can save Messina some time. According to both Bloomberg News and The New York Times, the director of White House Military Office, Louis Caldera, was called out for this activity by Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, who “conveyed the president’s anger.” That doesn’t sound so good. Caldera subsequently issued an apology and “took responsibility for it.” In his memo, he apologized for “any distress” the incident caused.

The other thing that makes little sense to me is why the government refused to let New York authorities notify the public about the planned photography. According to the article in the Times, the NYPD were told that the exercise “should only be shared with persons with a need to know” and “shall not be released to the media.” It should be noted, however, that the NYPD had no understanding that the plane would fly as low as it did.

But here too, the story makes no sense. Bloomberg News notes that “federal officials took the proper steps to notify state and local authorities in New York and New Jersey..” Why Mayor Michael Bloomberg wasn’t one of those local authorities is anyone’s guess. Unfortunately, the “mission created confusion and disruption.”

I would think that anyone living and working in lower Manhattan is on that “need to know” list. Anyone visiting New York that day would “need to know.” In fact, given the impact a day like September 11, 2001 had on this entire country, I think we all had a “need to know.” But maybe that’s just me.

Both sides of the aisle displayed snippets of common sense we see very rarely in Washington. Senator John McCain (R) and Senator Chuck Schumer (D) both expressed their disbelief about the decision. McCain indicated that the “disruption and panic should have been foreseeable.” Schumer, representing the people of New York, stated it more bluntly when he said “…someone at the FAA should have had the foresight to realize that New Yorkers would see this stunt and think back to 9-11.”

Here’s my favorite part of the story and my favorite part of our government. Press Secretary Gibbs assured us that the investigation of the entire incident wouldn’t take more than a few weeks. And after that, President Obama would review the facts and figure out what to do next.

A few weeks? A few weeks?? What makes anyone think the facts, such as they are, will get even more clear as time passes? You have to wonder in this time of austerity, how much time and energy and money the investigation will cost us.

Besides, I know what to do next. Stop taking pictures of the plane. Don't fly it unless it's transporting the president somewhere. And the next time someone has a harebrained idea like flying a jet over Manhattan with two fighter jets trailing it and not telling many people about it, he or she should be forced to watch tapes of 9-11 and then re-present the same idea the next day.

And stop having five or six or seven or eight people respond to the media about a story like this. Aren't there more critical issue to manage in Washington?


Alison said...

I couldn't agree with you more! I actually published a very similar post the day after this incident took place.

Renee said...

Hi Alison -

Thanks for your comment - sorry for the delayed response.

I hope I get to a point one day - or maybe I don't - where nothing the government does surprises me.

This story hasn't quite faded away yet. I'm posting an update shortly - I'm sure you've read the latest.

Stay tuned! And thanks again for your feedback.