Andrews Air Force Base, Tuesday, June 12, 9:00 PM
The radio on the helicopter was tuned to the tower frequency, and the crisp metallic voices said Air Force One was on final approach long before anyone could see it. The little welcoming party--the Vice President, the President's daughter, the President's Special Counsel--climbed down from the helicopter and crossed the ramp under umbrellas held by the Marine attendants. They passed through the knot of media people waiting in the drizzle and stood apart from them, a little closer to the roll of red carpet that would be unrolled to the foot of the steps when Air Force One was on the ground. They joined the media group in staring expectantly at the overcast sky.
Lynne Webster, the President's daughter, found Ron Fairbanks's hand. She squeezed it. One of the television people noticed and nudged the woman beside him. It was nothing odd. Washington knew there was something between the President's daughter and his Special Counsel. The NBC camera zoomed for a moment to the clasped hands, and suddenly hundreds of thousands of people saw. For many it was more interesting than the President's return from Paris, where he had just signed some kind of trade agreement. His daughter was a tall, handsome, brown-haired girl. The nation had watched her mature in three years in the White House: from a gawky adolescent to a young woman gaining self-assurance, poise, and presence. Fairbanks was an obscure figure. Everyone had seen his picture in Time or somewhere: one of the bright young men who worked for the President; but what he did, exactly, was not clear. Anyway, he was a good-looking young fellow; he made a good picture standing in the rain holding the hand of the President's daughter. They made an appealing couple, a good picture for the home screens and for tomorrow's tabloids.
Air Force One appeared beneath the overcast--a Boeing 747 now--huge, majestic, vaguely eerie in its landing configuration, with flaps down, gear down, long thin beams of light extending from its wings toward the runway. It settled slowly, its movement almost imperceptible, silent, powerful. The honor guard came to attention just as the tires touched the runway with a quick screech, and the airplane rushed past, noisy now, roaring, slowing. It passed the ramp and ran almost to the end of the runway; then slowly it turned and began its slow taxi back to the ramp.
Wind drove the rain momentarily into the faces of the little welcoming party. Fairbanks put a finger to Lynne's cheek and pushed away a strand of her hair that had been blown there and stuck in the glistening rain water. It was an intimate gesture the television cameras missed. He smiled at her, she returned it. They were not lovers, whatever the speculation. Since last fall, when she left for her third year of college, he had seen her only two or three times. Now that she was back at the White House for the summer, he would see her more often. He might become, over the summer, something more than a convenient, quasi-official escort for her--the staff bachelor who was available to accompany her when it was awkward for her to be alone. They might decide if they wanted their relationship to be anything more . . . they were amused, both by the situation and by the speculation it generated. They understood each other. She liked him, he liked her.
The 747 taxied to the ramp, its great engines whining, overpowering the chatter among the media people and the low monotone of the network narrators. Air Force One never failed to awe. Even the bold legend along its body--united states of america--was awesome by its simplicity. President Webster understood the dramatic value of the big airplane, and he took full advantage of it. He had retired the 707 that had long served as Air Force One and substituted this 747 for it--not without some grumbling from the Congress--probably as much from a sense of its grandeur as from the practical need. The pilots swung its nose around, and the airplane came to a stop only a foot from the stairway that was now nudged up to it.
The airplane sat there in the white glare of floodlights--raindrops sparkling in the unnaturally bright electric light. The engines stopped. Marines rolled out the red carpet to the foot of the stairs. The door opened. The Marine Band struck up "Ruffles and Flourishes." The President appeared in the door. "Hail to the Chief." He smiled and turned to speak to his wife. She stepped out. They stood for a moment, blinking into the glare of the light, both smiling, nodding blindly at the small crowd at the foot of the stairs. Two Secret Service men trotted up the stairs with umbrellas. The President grinned and motioned them away. With his wife's hand in his, he hurried down the stairs.
Robert Lang Webster, President of the United States. He was fifty-five years old and looked maybe a few years younger. They said he had thrived on the presidency; and, although his face was deeply lined, he was gray only at the temples and his hair was thick and dark; he was hard and thin and given to abrupt, decisive movement. He allowed another Secret Service man to drape a raincoat over his shoulders as he stepped up to the microphones and faced the television cameras.
Catherine Steele Webster. She was fifty-four and looked forty. She acknowledged that a New York surgeon had taken some tucks in the flesh around her face and subdued some wrinkles, and she said she would have it done again whenever she thought she needed it. She accepted a raincoat as she sidestepped the microphones and reached out to take Lynne's hands. She stood for a moment, facing Lynne and smiling, then nodded at Ron Fairbanks and winked before she moved to her husband's side. She nudged her husband and muttered something that the CBS microphone, a little closer to her than the others, picked up for the nation--"Let's get on with it, it's raining."
The President beckoned Lynne to come and stand beside him. He kissed her on the cheek.
The Vice President, Allan Torner, began to say something about the President's quest for peace and prosperity and about how the nation had watched what he had done in Paris and now welcomed him home. The President listened to Torner and nodded at him as he spoke, but he was unable--and not at much effort--to conceal his impatience.
"Thank you, Mr. Vice President--Allan," said the President as soon as Torner paused and might be finished. "I appreciate your coming out to meet us. I appreciate the ladies and gentlemen of the print and electronic media also coming here. This is not a very dramatic homecoming. We made a quick trip to Paris to initial the preliminary trade agreements entered into among many nations in the interest of mutual aid and shared prosperity. It really was not necessary for me to go, as some have pointed out, except that I wanted to demonstrate to the people of the United States and the people of the participating nations of Europe, Asia, and North America--all of whom will be called on to make certain sacrifices to achieve our joint goals--that the President of the United States is wholly committed to the economic program represented by the multilateral agreements. That is why I went. The negotiations are continuing. The initial accomplishment of this agreement will be followed by other accomplishments, other elements of the program. We have charted a difficult course. But we will achieve our goals."
He wiped rainwater from his forehead with the back of his hand, and he could be seen to chuckle quietly as he flipped the water in the direction of the TV cameras. It was somehow the right gesture for the moment, one of the small gestures for which he seemed to have an unconscious but almost infallible instinct. Some of the media people laughed.
The President stepped back from the microphones and glanced at the Secret Service man nearest him: a suggestion the party was ready to be led to the helicopter.
"Mr. President!" The CBS man, Ted O'Malley, was trying to ask a question. "May we ask why the Secretary of State did not go to Paris with you? Is there anything to the rumor he is resigning?"
The President pointed, grinning, at O'Malley. "Hi, Ted!" he yelled. He was away from the microphones, and they were not picking him up. "Don't believe all the rumors you hear," he called over his shoulder as he turned away from the media group and herded his party toward the helicopter. He waved and grinned again at O'Malley before he turned his back and moved decisively away.
The President and Catherine Webster, Lynne, the Vice President, and Ron Fairbanks climbed into the helicopter. The floodlights had been swung away from Air Force One and now glared on the green and white helicopter. The rotor was turning slowly above the helicopter. The red lights on it were blinking. The President's face appeared for a moment in a window. He waved at the media people and the small crowd behind the fence. The rotor swung fast, and the helicopter rose.
The 'copter hovered above the ramp, heavily, gracelessly, and tipped forward slightly and slid over the ground, away from the ramp and the lights, into the darkness. Two others, just like it, rose and joined it before it gained altitude and left the area of the Air Force base. The other two were helicopter gunships, carrying electronics to detect any threat to the presidential helicopter--from a missile, from an airplane, from a shot fired from the ground--and to take electronic countermeasures, or to fire shots if necessary. The three helicopters flew in formation. The presidential helicopter flew on the left of the formation tonight. Sometimes it flew in the middle, sometimes on the right; an attacker would not know which helicopter carried the President.
Ron Fairbanks disliked the helicopter. No matter it was the President's helicopter, it was always noisy, always shook, and its erratic motion unsettled his stomach. He could never be less than fully conscious that it was the presidential helicopter and that he, Ron Fairbanks of Fairfield, California, was aboard with the President of the United States; but it unsettled his stomach just the same. The President was saying something, but it was not directed at him, and he did not try to listen.
The President was talking to Lynne. Fairbanks had noticed before how, at times like this when no one else could claim his attention, the President would focus his attention on Lynne and for a few minutes give himself exclusively to her. It did not happen by chance; he made a point of it. She was his youngest child, and he had been absent during years that were important to her--absent running for the Senate, then being a senator, absent running for President, then being President. At moments like this--and they were always private moments--he would lean toward her and speak quietly but with intensity and animation. And warmth. If the public had seen the genuine, human warmth he showed in these private moments, his public image might have been radically different.
The public image was of an able, tough, decisive man. He inspired confidence. The editorialists and pundits said of him that he was the first President in decades from whom the American people were willing to accept leadership, because he inspired confidence. He was combative. (He had utterly declared war on the Congress--privately he had once referred to the Senate as a "collection of minor-league dipsomaniacs and fugitives from dementia praecox." Publicly, he had called the United Nations General Assembly a circus. He had called a sign-waving, chanting crowd of anti-nuclear power demonstrators "a mob of infants having a public tantrum.") He was almost ruthless at times. When his first Secretary of the Treasury admitted on "Meet the Press" that an income tax rate adjustment the Administration was sponsoring might have an inflationary effect, the President summarily fired him. ("In this Administration everyone sings from the same sheet," he had said.) He was blunt. (He told a summit conference of European heads of government that "the basic foreign policy of the United States is pursuit of the enlightened self-interest of the United States.") The American people loved all of it. He had a high approval rating in the polls.
But he was not shallow. (The remainder of his statement to the European heads of government was that the enlightened self-interest of the United States dictated adherence to the program of multilateral trade agreements he had doggedly promoted for three years, and he had been telling them that their own self-interest would be best served if they, too, adhered to that program.) He had courage. (He had anticipated the political furor that would follow his firing of the Secretary of the Treasury and had decided to tough it out.) He could be subtle. (His statement about the anti-nuclear demonstrators was a signal to a hundred other groups of all kinds, who had made a fad of street tantrums, that demonstrations would not influence him to take positions he didn't believe in.) And he was a consummate political manipulator. (Even the Senate he had so colorfully characterized passed most of the legislation he wanted, because he had a thumb, and a dossier, on forty or fifty senators.)
He was powerful. He carried people along with him. His own sense of purpose was real. He was able to communicate much of that sense to the people who worked for him and some of it to the nation. He communicated more of his self-confidence.
He had almost walked away from his appointment with President-elect Webster without seeing him. He had flown from Washington for a two-o'clock appointment with Senator and President-elect Webster in his transition headquarters in the Renaissance Center in Detroit; and when five o'clock came and he knew he would miss his return flight if he waited any longer, he almost walked out and caught a cab back to the airport. He might be only a young lawyer working his way up in a Washington firm, but he had his self-respect, and the apparent rudeness of Webster or of his organization turned him angry. Anyway, the dramatic impact of walking out on an appointment with the President-elect of the United States somehow appealed to him; and it was only the thought of the explanations he would have to make back in Washington that kept him in the bleak temporary reception room, pacing, staring down from fifty floors at the gray waters of the Detroit River through heavy snow swirling on a gusty winter wind. . . .
Excerpted from Murder in the White House by Margaret Truman. Copyright © 2001 by Margaret Truman. Excerpted by permission of Fawcett, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.