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Travel Horrors: The World : All the Way With LBJ

October 30, 1994|MURIEL DOBBIN | Dobbin is now a national correspondent and White House reporter for the Washington Bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She has written four books. Excerpted by permission from "I Should Have Stayed Home" (Book Passage Press). and

The late President Lyndon B. Johnson rarely missed a funeral, no matter how far he had to go. And where the President of the United States goes, the White House press corps, which has on occasion been mistaken for the cast of "The Night of the Living Dead," follows.

Perhaps the most memorably awful of LBJ's travels was the time he went to the funeral of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, who had disappeared during a fishing trip around Christmas of 1967 and was presumed drowned. Many people believed he'd been eaten by a shark. Johnson decided he was going to Australia for the funeral.

The White House travel office swung into action with the efficiency for which it was known in those days. About a hundred reporters, photographers and television technicians signed up, a plane was chartered for the press, and we were told that we needed five shots, for everything from cholera to tetanus, before we left the next morning.

At the time, I was a White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, so I was in the lineup of reporters assembled in the White House press room to get three shots in one arm and two in the other.

The five shots began to take effect as the press embarked on what was supposed to be a 48-hour trip to Australia and back. I was seated next to Frank Cormier of the Associated Press, who was running a fever, and alternately requesting blankets and gin. This was before the days when reporters drank mineral water and communed chiefly with computers.

What we didn't know--I doubt that LBJ even knew, because he never made his mind up until the last minute--was that we were going around the world in about four days, most of it in the dark.

On the way to Australia, we stopped to refuel in Hawaii in the midst of a tropical downpour. Only the President and I were given umbrellas. He got one because of who he was and I got one because I was the only female reporter on the press plane. This was also in the days when the White House press corps was 98% male. By the time I got back on board, my drenched colleagues almost without exception had taken off their pants and wound blankets around themselves. The entire plane was draped with dripping trousers and smelled like a steam laundry.

Also on the way to Australia, we discovered that Dan Rather, then the CBS White House correspondent, liked to sleep under the seat. He negotiated with sitting occupants not to put their feet on his face then wrapped himself mummy-like in a blanket and stretched out below three rows of seats. It was unnerving until you got used to the idea, and what was most exasperating about it was that he would emerge without a hair out of place or a wrinkle on his shirt.

Canberra was notable for the fact that it was the only time in 3 1/2 days that we slept in hotel beds. The rest of the time, we sprawled across each other in the plane as it whipped around the globe in the Presidential wake.

The Holt funeral was the only planned event, and characteristically LBJ took the opportunity to stage a series of one-on-one meetings with prime ministers from Britain, New Zealand and Singapore. He even got together with Harold Holt's grandson, and paid quite a lot of attention to Imelda Marcos, who was a very good looking woman in those days. We watched and noted and wrote and began to worry about the rumors that we wouldn't be home for Christmas.

The rumors proved to be true. The Presidential entourage, trailed by the weary press, took off for what turned out to be Khorat Air Force Base in Thailand, where we discovered flying cockroaches and watched the President listen to pilots talk about the air war in Vietnam. It was then we had our first casualty. A photographer was carried off suffering from exhaustion and followed by several envious glances.

We soon learned that Vietnam was our next destination. A screen was put up at the back of the press plane so the press corps could receive hepatitis shots in its collective rear end. By dawn we arrived at the American base at Cam Ranh Bay.

LBJ was just hitting his stride. It had apparently occurred to him this trip was a good opportunity to traverse the globe. He also had a bedroom on Air Force One and was doing a good deal better than the press was. We had a full-time medic aboard by that time, ministering to high temperatures and swollen arms.

We never saw our bags after we left Australia because we didn't stop anywhere long enough for them to unpack the plane. This was the trip where I learned the value of a flight bag containing an extra sweater and underwear.

We never saw anything because we invariably touched down at night, and even filing stories was difficult. We had to use local telephones, which meant taking hours to send stories.

We flew from Vietnam to Pakistan, where another photographer was carried off the plane on a stretcher, suffering from a heart attack. We were worried about him, but his absence meant there was another seat to sleep on.

From Pakistan, we flew to Rome where the President of Italy and the Pope were waiting and Marine One, the presidential helicopter, tore up the Vatican lawn.

Rome was our last stop. We went home on Christmas Eve via Ireland where the press plane stopped at the Shannon Airport to refuel and also let the press do its Christmas shopping.

The White House gave each of us a photo album as a souvenir. It was full of glossy color shots of LBJ pumping hands and hugging people. It was billed as "First Presidential Around-the-World Trip." And it lived up to Johnson's campaign motto: "All the way with LBJ."

I had brought home some souvenirs as well. I still had bumps and bruises all over my body from groping up and down the aisle of the press plane.

But I was grateful to LBJ. Within four days, I had dropped from a Size 10 to a Size 8.

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