I stepped out of the Metro station onto Farragut Park, and as I strike up my cigarette I notice a cop car with its lights on stop in the middle of the eastbound side of K Street. Then another police car, also with its lights flashing, pulled into 17th Street and stopped. Across the park, more flashing lights. I looked around the corner up the street, and there are still more police cars, lights flashing, block intersections for several blocks.
Cool. It’s a motorcade. This form of spontaneous street theater occurs frequently in Washington. It turned out to be Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, I later learned.
There is a hierarchy of motorcades in D.C., ranging from extravaganzas stretching for blocks to comparatively dinky police-car escorts.
The big enchilada, of course, is the presidential motorcade. You can always tell when Bush is moving because the white Secret Service helicopter is up. Washington is unlike most American cities – well, for many reasons, not the least of which is the lack of aircraft flying overhead. The airspace is restricted. No news or police helicopters, no aircraft of any kind fly over D.C.. Planes flying in and out of Reagan National follow a gut-wrenching curved flight path over the Potomac running South and West of the city.
If you hear a helicopter in Washington, it’s either the Secret Service or Marine One, which passes by often. A couple of times interceptor jets have screamed overhead when aircraft penetrated the airspace. Usually DC is free from the noise of aircraft unless the President is on the move.
Nothing compares with a presidential motorcade. All the intersections are blocked along the route. Sometimes I’ll notice police cars pre-positioned at several intersections and get the sense that something is up. Sure enough, on cue they’ll turn on their lights and pull into the intersections to stop traffic. The white helicopter is up. There are snipers on the rooftops. The cops order everybody to stop crossing the street and to stay on the sidewalk.
The roar of Harley Davidson motorcycles fills the air. And then the SUVs, one after another – one of them with the rear window open. There’s an SUV bristling with antennae, which presumably is a communications vehicle. In another SUV, a guy stands up through a sunroof holding a video camera – a press vehicle? More SUVs, a few panel vans looking heavily armored, containing god knows what kind of weapons or equipment. An ambulance, a police car, and more motorcycles.
There are two presidential limousines in the motorcade, one of them presumably a decoy. Once I was looking into the sun as the limousines went past me, and I could clearly see Bush talking on the phone in the back seat. The first limo had no passenger in back.
Cheney’s motorcade is only slightly less showy – no helicopter, a handful fewer motorcycles and SUVs, surprisingly no ambulance. Still an impressive display of force. Sometimes I’ll see a police car followed by a few SUVs and a sedan or limo and another police car, running red lights but without blocked intersections, which probably indicates a cabinet-level position, perhaps Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State. Smaller diplomatic motorcades may be four or fewer cars. If your in-town car is a red Grand Marquis rented at Dulles, you might want to skip the motorcade altogether. That’s just pitiable.
For weeks I’ve been seeing an unusual motorcade – one police car, four SUVs, a shuttle-like bus, and another police car. Three or four times a week, they’d speed down 17th Street. It was the short bus that piqued my curiosity. What could it be, a group of VIP conventioneers?
Last week I found out. It’s the Obama motorcade. The short bus is for the press.
The first time I saw Obama was June 26, the evening before his joint appearance in Unity, New Hampshire, with Hillary Clinton. Obama and Clinton, along with their staffers and money people, met at the Mayflower to begin healing primary-campaign wounds.
Working near the Mayflower, and not far from the White House, we see this sort of thing pretty often. The Mayflower is a landmark, where foreign heads of state and diplomats stay, where K street lawyers make deals in the lounge, where Linda Tripp convinced Monica Lewinsky to keep evidence over lunch, where Elliott Spitzer spent $4,800 on a hooker. That kind of place.
During lunch one day last week Obama was back at the Mayflower. I hung out with people in front of National Geographic for a while, then gave up and had to go back to work. Damn the luck, I later heard from others in my building that Obama walked around the street-side of his vehicle and waved to the crowd.