I called my sister. “I’ve just met the President,” I said. “I drove a car in his motorcade.”
“Good for you,” she said distractedly. “President of what?”
“The United States.”
“What? You met him? What did you say?”
Two years out of Berkeley, I am a scruffy, marginally employed hipster. Meeting the President and driving a van in the motorcade is unexpected, if not absurd.
A high school friend who worked for the campaign and later the White House emailed me: “Hey Scott. Dave Gifford. The President is heading to San Francisco Oct. 15. Would you be interested in driving a vehicle in his motorcade?” My full response was: “Yes.”
I was confident that parking tickets would invalidate me. Turns out that the President parks wherever he likes, so I passed. A week later, I was in the back of San Francisco International Airport along with at least two dozen police cars, an ambulance, several SWAT vans, numerous motorcycle police, and several black SUVs. In one SUV, I was told, they had a machine gun pointing out from the trunk. I thought that might have been a joke, but then I remembered that I was not dealing with people who traffic in levity.
The six volunteers were each to drive vans from Air Force One to the hotel where press and staff were staying, then to and from the fundraiser, and back the next morning. A Secret Service agent briefed us. We were to travel at a safe distance and speed. No phones, cameras, or second chances. If under attack, we were to stay in our vehicles and keep driving. He spoke in a rehearsed monotone—relaxed, but professional. I was terrified.
All the vans drove out onto the tarmac. I watched the plane land and taxi and fiddled with the radio. On. Off. On. I found KFOG. Local flavor, I thought. Air Force One looming over me, I turned it off.
The plane disgorged its passengers, the President from the front and most everyone else from the back. Staff and press went into waiting cars in front of me and behind me. Nobody came into my car. Nobody was headed in my direction.
My radio crackled. “Renegade depart.” It was the President’s call sign. The cars moved. The van in front of me started to move. I looked left, right, up, down. Not even a junior assistant appeared. No choice. I moved. I knew I had left behind staff. Dave was going to get fired. No second chances.
My phone buzzed. Dave’s text message: “If your car is empty, it’s OK.” I turned on KFOG again. I was driving the decoy, I told myself. How admirable.
San Francisco was filled with crowds of cheering people. They weren’t for me, but I waved.
Later, as I parked, the SWAT vehicle loomed beside me. My opinion of the heavily armed wing of the State/Capital apparatus is exemplified by that fact that I can use a phrase like that with a straight face. I thought I might be shot. The driver in his black body armor leaned out. In a tone that you or I would use when speaking to, well, the President, he asked, “Do you mind if we pull up past you, if that’s alright?”
I said, “Of course, officer.” I politely kept my hands on the wheel, like Mom and the ACLU taught me. The officer’s partner leaned forward to look at me, taking in my shaggy hair and trembling hands. “He’s not with the Secret Service,” he roared, laughing as they sped in front.
The next morning in the garage, I asked Dave what it would do to a man to have a team of police and Secret Service, staff and volunteers just to accompany him on a drive to the airport. How could he not become Richard Nixon? “What do you mean one team?” Dave said. “There’s five or six spread out over the country.”
Then I met the President.
What do you imagine you’d say to him? Please halt global warming. Fix health care. Maybe you would thank or blame him. I hope you wouldn’t ask for his birth certificate. But I wouldn’t be shocked if you said what I did: “My name is Scott Lucas, sir. It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. President.” Then he would thank you, clutch you around the back, and pose for the picture.
I drove my decoy back, KFOG still on. A clear day, with a few high clouds. Two police officers stood on the overpass, framed against the sky, saluting the President. I didn’t wave. It wasn’t for me.