The mood was not particularly up in Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis' office yesterday morning, as often happens when human realities collide with political standards.
"What do we know about this controller -- this striking controller -- who committed suicide?" he asks an aide. Lewis covers his face with his hands and rubs his eyes.
"Boy, I feel bad about that guy. Does he have any family?"
A beat. No answer. A political reality:
"You might want to call communications chief David Gergen over at the White House and let him know, in case he gets asked any questions." (By late yesterday evening the only detail available was that James Kolb, 33, of Indianapolis, was found dead in his closed garage with the car running.)
Lewis' office is bright and spacious, and through a wall of windows to his right Lewis has a spectacular, unobstructed view of National Airport, where traffic has dropped 25 percent since the controllers walked off their jobs two weeks ago. This does not please Andrew L. "Drew" Lewis, 49, student pilot, gentleman farmer and, recently, labor negotiator.
"I've always said that when you fire somebody, a little bit of you goes out the door, too," he says. He sips a wine glass half filled with iced tea and a slice of lemon that a moment earlier had rested elegantly on a napkin atop his desk, which has only a few thin memos and a green felt-tip pen on it. "The fact that 12,000 people left $33,000-a-year jobs means somebody did something wrong. I'm not sure who. But I cannot see the possibility of bringing back these people and I cannot see sitting down again with Mr. Poli."
Less than a mile to the north, on the eighth floor of an office building, in a dark room with curtains blocking the sun, Robert Poli, president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), is sitting behind a cluttered desk. He's sipping coffee from a big pottery mug and smoking plenty of Merits. It is almost as if Poli were still a controller, a job he held for 13 years until 1972. The only thing missing is the screen. For that the 44-year-old bearded, bespectacled man has to go to the movies, his favorite recreational pastime, which he sometimes does two or three times in a day. Dark room, eyes glued to the screen: the life of an air traffic controller.
"These people had a job that paid reasonably well and they struck over some serious issues," he says. "I'm not a pied piper. They cared about the issues. They were worried about job problems, especially the spouses, who were saying, 'Better not to have a job like this at all than to come home a wreck every night.' I still think they the government will sit down with us. Both sides have to save face, not to mention that the system is going down the tubes, and the reduced traffic is going to cause economic chaos."
The two chief players in this unprecedented labor dispute seem as different as a Piper Cub and a Boeing 747. Poli is a tough Italian kid from Pittsburgh, whose father carved ecclesiastical statuary and later worked in the dairy business. He went into the Air Force after playing baseball and football in high school, and continued the air traffic control trade he had learned in the service because he couldn't find another job.
Lewis grew up on a farm in the Amish countryside of Pennsylvania. His father had a successful trucking company, and Lewis became an Eagle Scout, graduated from Harvard Business School, made a fortune with a consulting firm and carved himself an influential niche in Pennsylvania politics.
Oddly enough, Poli has never flown a plane; Lewis has an airstrip on his 130-acre farm near Schwenksville, where his wife -- a Pennsylvania state legislator -- recently totaled the family Cessna 172 when she flipped it over some power lines and, as Lewis puts it, "parked it in the neighbor's volleyball net." The plane was carried out in small pieces; Marilyn Lewis and her three passengers walked away from it.
"One reason I learned to fly was that I found it tension-breaking," says Lewis. "Most of the pilots I've talked to think it's safer flying now. It's like a superhighway, like 395 at prime traffic: You have accidents. But the difference between 75 percent and 100 percent is tremendous: much easier, much safer."
"The only thing I worry about now," says Poli, "is two airplanes colliding. I think it's bound to happen. I personally know some of the guys who are working the system now, and they haven't handled an airplane since 1972."
"We've done studies," says Lewis, "which indicate that this job is no more stressful than the job a cop does."
"We've done studies," says Poli, "that show that 89 percent of our members don't reach retirement on the job. They get physically disqualified, or they go crazy."
Common wisdom would suggest that the truth lies somewhere betwixt and between all this. Yet by now, 13 days into the strike -- or 11 days after the job termination -- both men can't quite believe that all this has happened. They do agree on at least one issue:
"People who get on planes," says Lewis, "believe that the pilot is flying it."
"People think that the pilot is flying them through the sky," says Poli. "They have no idea what's going on in the control centers, where one guy is responsible for keeping 20 planes separated. I remember once when I was handling an Air Canada flight coming up over Pittsburgh and he had radio failure. I still remember he was at 37,000 feet and I had to move 20 planes out of the way. That's part of the job. It's when you get off your shift and start to think about it and you realize you might have killed 300 people with a wrong move -- that's when you start drinking.
"I got an anonymous phone call Saturday night," Poli says, lighting another cigarette. "This guy told me, 'I'm a PR person at the biggest firm in the country, and I'll tell you what your trouble is: You're segmented; you're not telling the public your whole story. Nobody really knows what you guys do or what you want.' I can only assume that this guy was for real. And it's partly right. Everybody thinks we wanted $10,000 pay increases. What we were really talking about was the health and future of our members, and the safety of every person in this country who flies a plane. We endorsed Ronald Reagan because he said he was going to rebuild the air traffic control system. Then they start talking to us about blue-ribbon committees. We've heard that for 10 years."
Robert Poli does not sound bitter. He sounds confused. "I'm the rarest breed in the world," he says, "a labor leader who went to the membership with a contract, had it rejected by 90 percent of the rank and file and his credibility went up. All I can assume is what I've said all along: PATCO is more than just a union; it's a religion."
And right now, PATCO's messianic leader, whose parents used to take him down to the local airport to watch the planes take off and land, thinks he's stuck in a holding pattern somewhere, stacked up right next to the president of the United States:
"I think it's the people around him who screwed up," says Poli. "I don't blame him. I think he was badly informed. I think he's saying to them now: 'You said they wouldn't strike; you said they'd come back in; what do you mean it will take 24 months to rebuild the system?' I think he can't believe these guys are still out there on the streets."
"In all honesty," says Lewis, "we did think a lot more controllers would come back in. I think if we'd had more time to negotiate this wouldn't have happened. I don't know how long it will take to rebuild the system. We're working on a report now. I'm told that we'll save in the neighborhood of $200 million over the period of the contract by replacing these people. We don't want to see people in the airline business go under because of this and, hopefully, as soon as we can get a firm schedule for the airlines . . . the fundamental problem is getting people to know the airlines are flying."
Poli and Lewis haven't seen each other for two weeks now, not since negotiations broke off on that stormy morning when, Poli says, Lewis threw the contract on the bargaining table and essentially said "take it or leave it." Their lives have been as disrupted as the planes caught in the not-so-friendly skies.
Still, the strain hardly blemishes Drew Lewis. His steely blue eyes and perfectly groomed hair and athletically trim figure seem in fighting condition. "Last night was the first good night of sleep I've had in 13 days," he says. "I'd hoped to be on vacation right now." And he proffers a bit of grassroots Republican wisdom: "I have this vegetable garden, and I think pulling weeds is the best therapy going."
Poli, who is known to some of his constituents as "Rolly Poli," looks more fatigued. His shirt collar is open and his tie is loosened. But it's not as if he's given up. "You're never dead until your eyes are closed," he says. "And mine are wide open."
"I'm supposed to get married in September," he says. And regaining for a moment his wry sense of humor, he adds: "Except I might be in jail."