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Campaigning Politicians Try Not to Dwell on Risks

The death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a crash that also killed his wife, daughter and five others, is the latest in a long line of casualties.

October 27, 2002|Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writer

The trick is not to think about it, political veterans say.

The constant air travel, the flights on tiny planes, the trips through lousy weather, all routine. Everyone -- candidates, their aides and the reporters who follow them around -- has a harrowing story to tell. But few ever refuse to travel on.

Bill Carrick, a veteran political consultant, can vividly recall a 1988 flight over Iowa with House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), then vying for the presidency. At 9,000 feet the battery froze.

"That was a little scary," Carrick said. The next day he and Gephardt got right back on the plane.

H.D. Palmer, communications director for California's Senate Republican Caucus, was once high above Idaho in a four-seater with then-Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho) when the plane door popped open.

"There were two people strapped into one seat belt in the back," he said. "I put one hand on Sen. McClure's shoulder and pulled the door shut with the other. I was a little unnerved; he barely blinked."

But as much as they try to put it out of their minds, the risk sometimes overtakes American politicians and their staffs.

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), who died Friday in a crash that also killed his wife, daughter, three close aides and two pilots, was the latest in a long line of casualties.

En route to the funeral of a friend's father, Wellstone had been going at a hectic pace for weeks, one that had picked up speed in recent days as he battled to hold his seat against a strong Republican challenge.

"This is retail politics: getting out, meeting voters in different parts of the state," said Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota professor of American politics who was closely following the race. "It is absolutely not an option to not fly. [Wellstone] had to be everywhere at once."

This brand of press-the-flesh campaigning has dominated American politics since the beginning -- a style made only more demanding with modern air travel.

The dangers are illustrated by the names of some of the dead and an account of near misses:

Two years ago Mel Carnahan, the Democratic governor of Missouri, was killed near the close of his Senate campaign in a plane piloted by his son. In 1993, South Dakota Gov. George S. Mickelson died along with seven others when his state-owned plane crashed in an Iowa rainstorm. In 1991, Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) went down when his chartered plane collided with a helicopter.

McClure, as Palmer pointed out, was first elected to Congress in 1966 after the leading Republican candidate was killed in a fiery crash on landing before election day.

"You don't think about it, because you can't think about it," said Eric Hauser, a political consultant who was Bill Bradley's press secretary during the former New Jersey senator's presidential run in 2000.

"It's not only because your mind is so far past the safety issues, but that your purpose is singular," Hauser said. "If there's a problem -- maybe the plane gets grounded or something -- all you think about is: What's the next thing to do?"

Part of the danger lies in the frequency with which politicians fly smaller planes and take noncommercial flights, a necessity in many states where campaign stops are far from big airports.

The statistics are alarming. In 2000, for example, charters logged only about three flights for every five flown by major airlines in the United States but accounted for 80 accidents, compared with 56 accidents involving the large carriers, according to FAA records.

From 1996 through 1999, the accident rate for charters was 3.46 per 100,000 passengers, about 12 times that of large commercial air carriers.

When questions arise about a plane's safety, campaign staff members often assure others on board that a candidate would never intentionally be placed at risk. Still, budgets are tight in most campaigns, making changes in travel arrangements difficult under any but extreme circumstances.

Even White House travel can be an adventure for those relegated to charter flights needed for the overflow from Air Force One and Two.

The Washington Post reported earlier this year that one Canadian charter company used for a European trip ran out of fuel on a subsequent transatlantic flight and was forced to make an emergency landing in the Azores. The captain, it turned out, had served time for drug-running. The company, Air Transat, was banned from future White House work.

In 1984, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then a Democratic presidential hopeful, took matters into his own hands after a charter flight so rocky that some sobbing passengers thought the plane would break up in midair. After kissing the ground upon landing, Jackson ordered his staff to hire another plane. At the time, the craft's defenders said he was overreacting. One even suggested that he would have been better off kissing the plane. Eight months later the same craft, a Lockheed Electra that had also been used in the campaign of Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), crashed outside Reno.

Although they know the history, those regularly on the campaign trail say it doesn't overwhelm them.

"You know these aren't commercial airliners with rigorous safety checks. You aren't flying into sophisticated airports. A lot of the time you're going into rural areas," Carrick said.

"But you get over it. A day later you say, 'Why would anyone in the world do that?' But I'll end up on a crop duster in Iowa in 18 months, come primary time."

Carrick said it was not lost on him that Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who lost a close aide and nearly died in a 1964 plane crash, had spent Friday morning campaigning with Wellstone.

"Look at Sen. Kennedy. He went down on an airplane, broke his back, his aide was killed and he's out there doing it every day now," Carrick said. "I think you just move on."

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