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Insider : Keeping Things Up to Date in Kennebunkport : When the President travels to Maine, an amazing array of communications gadgetry goes with him.

August 28, 1990|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KENNEBUNKPORT, Me. — This sleepy seacoast village may not seem like the sort of place where the President of the United States can keep abreast of the crisis in the Middle East, but during times like this it frequently serves as Command Central.

The "White House"--as all of its modern-day occupants have found--isn't just a term to describe the Greek Revival mansion in which the President lives. It is a bureaucratic, movable feast that the President takes with him wherever he goes.

But whether it's the "Western White House" of Ronald Reagan or the "Kennebunkport White House" of George Bush, the portable banquet comes with secure telephones, secure faxes and aides who quietly say, "Mr. President, we have the prime minister on the line. . . . "

In the case of President Bush, that dazzling array of electronic accouterments gets the maximum test--particularly in times of crisis.

"Haven't you seen the telephone in my golf cart? Or boat? Word of honor," Bush said to reporters on his way up here as he sought to quell any concerns that he might be out of touch far from Washington in the northeast corner of the nation.

The President wasn't kidding.

Within hours after he arrived here on Aug. 10, the White House put out the word that Bush had just finished going over an Arab League statement with his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, in Washington--via a cellular telephone aboard his speedboat, Fidelity.

At 5:30 a.m. each day, while most people are asleep--or perhaps groping for their morning coffee--Bush says he is reaching for a telephone to call the White House situation room in Washington for an early update on overnight developments in Iraq.

Early one morning last week, Bush received his daily national security briefing aboard the Coast Guard cutter Monomoy, bobbing on the Atlantic swells--from his deputy national security adviser, Robert M. Gates.

And especially during times of international crisis, the wires--or telephone circuits--here are buzzing all day. "George Bush's first instinct is to get on the phone and call around," says a former White House aide who has watched the President closely.

Indeed, since arriving in Kennebunkport, the President has spoken by telephone with about a dozen foreign leaders. And he has welcomed several others to his stone-and-frame home here for lengthy conversations about the gulf.

The briefing on the Monomoy and the telephone calls on the Fidelity certainly were attention-grabbers, but they reflected a point the White House has taken considerable pains to make during the three weeks since Iraq invaded Kuwait: Although critics have contended that Bush should be shepherding the crisis from Washington, aides say he is just as closely in touch in Kennebunkport as he would be in the Oval Office or in the Situation Room.

Keeping the President in touch is the work of an obscure branch of the Army Signal Corps known as the White House Communications Agency.

Somewhere in a rented home in Kennebunkport, the unit has set up a switchboard that essentially parallels the communications facilities in the White House both in its power and in its capability.

Whenever the President ventures beyond Walker's Point--the 11-acre Bush family compound that juts out into the Atlantic--a ubiquitous black Chevy van bedecked with high-powered antennas quietly follows, ready to send and receive signals worldwide.

Here's the van, at the very end of a presidential motorcade, wending its way from Walker's Point to the Cape Arundel Golf Club. There it is, engine at idle, parked to the side of the road as the President jogs down a dirt path.

Thomas C. Griscom, a former assistant to Reagan, concedes that the notion that a President can stay in touch when he's far away from Washington is difficult for some people to swallow.

"A lot of people have a hard time accepting the fact you can take the White House on the road," Griscom says.

But he insists that "it's not difficult at all to provide the logistic support" outside Washington. Indeed, in recent years, White House technicians have set up "fully functional" communications facilities in such unlikely places as Moscow and Beijing.

It wasn't always that way. A few years ago, before the invention of secure facsimile machines, the White House used to dispatch airplanes, laden with packages of Very Important Papers for the Commander in Chief, whenever a President went to places such as Kennebunkport.

Even during the Reagan and Richard M. Nixon years, such cross-country flights were not uncommon.

But today, there is less need for such courier flights because fax machines can transmit classified documents without danger that the equipment can be tapped.

Still, all is not perfect.

When it became clear that Bush would be spending a lot of time here, White House advance personnel went looking for a nearby hotel to use for office space. They settled on the Nonantum, which has broad picture windows overlooking the Kennebunk River and the Atlantic.

Almost as soon as they had installed their communications gear, however, the security experts discovered that their voices could be picked up by boats at sea with microphones that are sensitive enough to translate the vibrations from the window glass back into sound.

So, they're worried that while Bush may be staying in touch with his staff--and with prime ministers around the globe--the Kennebunkport White House may also be inadvertently transmitting to sailors aboard a Soviet listening-vessel just beyond the U.S. territorial limits.

Stay tuned.

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