Bob Manning Has traveled almost 4 million miles in 22 years at the White House, a distance roughly equal to eight round trips to the moon. It's easier to say where he hasn't been. One place is Antarctica. He was in Dallas with John F. Kennedy, in Peking with Richard Nixon, in Vladivostok with Gerald Ford, in Jerusalem with Jimmy Carter and at Windsor Castle with Ronald Reagan. He went around the world with Lyndon Johnson in 123 hours, but figures 58 of them were up in the air.
His job, until he retired this month, was White House logistics expert for presidential press travel. Since 1977, he's been in charge of the whole White House Transportation Office. In essence, he was tour guide for the most pampered group of journalists in the world. Manning rounded up airplanes, booked hotel rooms, soothed tears, set up telex machines, organized softball games, gave up his plane seat for poker players and, most recently, galumphed across Europe with 278 reporters and 400 bags. "God, it's a zoo," he says. "You take a wide-bodied DC10 and you pack it."
Manning says he's leaving because he promised it to his wife, B.J., a woman who sighs that he was gone "for every holiday, every birthday and every scraped knee." Besides, he's tired. "After all those years, it starts to beat you down, both physically and mentally," he says. "I want to go while I've still got that little spark."
When asked, he says his retirement at age 50 has nothing to do with private White House staff complaints that his record-keeping, although regarded as unflinchingly honest, was more casual than this administration prefers. "Bob ran that shop like something out of Charles Dickens," says one White House reporter. "He did it exceedingly well, but you wouldn't want to be the guy who made the books balance at the end of the year." As a charter agent who made White House travel arrangements for the news organizations, Manning handled about $1.5 million in cash a year.
(This week, administration officials said that Manning's office had accumulated a $165,000 surplus from overcharges during the Carter administration, although White House deputy press secretary Larry Speakes says there was "no evidence of any wrongdoing or that this was deliberate." Yesterday, Speakes told reporters that the news organizations would be refunded the money. "All I can honestly say is we tried to get the bills together as quickly as possible," Manning says. "It's hard, particularly on foreign trips, to get an exact, accurate estimate.")
Last night, reporters had a goodbye party for him at Washington's press bar, the Class Reunion; in California this month, United Press International's White House correspondent, Helen Thomas, toasted him as "Mr. Wonderful." He's called "The Silver Fox" because of his hair and his charm. He smokes dark cigarettes. His motto is "Gotcha Covered." As a goodbye present, the Secret Service gave him a naked, inflatable doll. He always seems calm. "Like a duck on a pond," says Ray Zook, his predecessor. "He looks like he's just sitting there, but underneath he's paddling like the dickens." Once, when reporters were howling to leave Texarkana, their heap of a press plane wouldn't start. Manning spied a military transport plane taxiing toward takeoff, then coolly radioed: "Could you all hold that just for a minute?"
In less frantic moments, he has helped put a live sheep in Newsweek reporter Tom DeFrank's hotel room (a practical joke) and retrieved the suitcase of a New York Times correspondent so he could find his shoes.
Manning was born and raised in Knoxville, Tenn., where he started out working as a teletype operator for the Southern Railway. He moved to the railway's Washington office, and it was there, one day in 1957, that the White House called. "I said, 'Shoot, yeah,' " he recalls. He operated a teletype under Dwight Eisenhower, but by the time Kennedy was president, he'd begun the first of his 4 million miles.
Lately he's been vacationing on Tilghman Island, Md. "I want to scrape the house, put a muffler on the truck and prune the roses," he says. "Then I want to talk to some people to see if I can find a job where I'm home."
The Funniest Trips
In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, two press buses were traveling toward the airport. One of them, to avoid a street fire, took a roundabout route. This resulted in the two press buses smashing into each other. Manning got out, flagged down a Saudi dump truck and piled everybody in. "And here was Connie Chung," he recalls, laughing about the woman who's now a Los Angeles television anchor, "I'll never forget it, wearing a beautiful pale yellow dress, sitting on top of a pile of garbage, looking immaculate."
In Poland, a tuba player in the presidential welcoming band got so excited he walked into Air Force One.
In Lahore, Pakistan, the hotel air conditioner didn't work. Manning figures it was 120 degrees. The hotel manager set up cots around a pool surrounded by shrubbery, but it was still so hot during the night that Manning had to get up every hour or so, dive in, then fall back to sleep with the wet sheet wrapped around him. The next morning, he found out that the hotel staff had spent the whole night beating off snakes in the bushes.
In Wellington, New Zealand, he had a hard time finding enough hotel rooms for the press. The staff got an old steamer out of mothballs, fixed it up, tied it to a dock and ran a gangplank from it to the press center, which happened to be an old warehouse. The only problem was that the ship listed a severe 30 degrees. But that was easily solved. They put a banner over the ship that said, "Welcome to the Tiltin' Hilton" and kept the bar open and free for 24 hours.
In Guam, a furry shrew slipped into the room of Life magazine reporter Dick Stolley, jumped on his chest and bit him.
The Sneakiest Trip
"You've got to hear about how we kidnaped the press corps," says Manning.
In 1966, while LBJ was in the Philippines during his Asian tour, the president decided to make a side trip to boost the morale of his troops in South Vietnam. No one was to know. Then-White House press secretary Bill Moyers told 64 White House reporters that there'd be a top-secret briefing at the U.S. Embassy in Manila at 10 a.m. The reporters filed in as the curtains were closed and the doors locked. Moyers told them they were going to Vietnam, but nothing could be filed, hinted or suggested. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and special assistant Walt Rostow fielded questions for an hour, and then everybody was led out the back door and loaded on buses, supplied by Manning. They were driven through the back streets of Manila and out to Sangley Point Naval Air Station, where they boarded the press plane.
The next thing they knew, they were flying with Johnson 735 miles across the South China Sea to Cam Ranh Bay.
The Toughest Trip
The next year, Johnson went around the world in 4 1/2 days the week before Christmas. As usual, the press wasn't sure where it would end up next. LBJ left Washington at noon on Tuesday, Dec. 19, refueled in Hawaii and Samoa, spent the night in Canberra, Australia, attended a memorial service for former Australian prime minister Harold Holt in Melbourne, refueled in Darwin, stopped for three hours at Khorat Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand, then made another surprise visit to Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam. "He'd made up his mind that it'd be nice to drop in and see his boys," Manning recalls. "The only thing that Air Force One would tell the captain of our press plane was how much fuel to put aboard." After that, he stopped in Pakistan, saw Pope John Paul VI for an hour in Rome, refueled in the Azores, then landed in Washington at 4:22 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 24. The White House advance team, which often arrives months before a presidential visit to settle labyrinths of detail, was flying a half-hour ahead.
Johnson's keep-'em-in-the-dark traveling style, at least for this trip, was for security purposes. He was flying into a war zone and also stopping in several countries where his advisers feared anti-American protests during the Vietnam War. Others said that LBJ, who was well-known for last-minute weekend trips to Texas, was just making it up as he went along. Jack Valenti, a former special assistant to LBJ, disagrees. "The president knew exactly where he was going," he says. "He just didn't tell anyone."
Including Manning. "My God, trying to scrounge up food," he recalls. "It was just a real scramble." His favorite memory is of Voice of America reporter Larry Lesueur, who appeared at a 3 a.m. press briefing in Khorat, impeccably dressed in his blue blazer, pajama bottoms and bare feet.
Another memory was the hour-long stop in Karachi, Pakistan. It was just enough time for the press to hit the airport gift shop. "No one had had a chance to do any shopping," he says. "And as you know, the press will buy anything. I mean, it was like locusts. They bought camel saddles, brass bells, anything. I think somebody tried to buy the shelves. I remember looking back and seeing that guy in the shop counting a stack of bills. He must have made $20,000."
The Trip of a Lifetime
In 1972, Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit China. But Manning beat him there.
For nearly a month, he and the advance team negotiated every detail. "There must have been 10,000 points to be settled," he says. "I mean, we would have meetings night and day, and we'd make proposals, and then the Chinese would consider it. My God, we met and met and met." There was the visit to the Great Wall, the boat ride in Hangzhou, the ballet, the banquet and the Ping-Pong. Manning remembers one "tough little cookie," his Chinese counterpart, who argued on every point. He would sit nearly immobile at the negotiating table, his eyes penetrating in a haze of smoke.
When the points were finally settled and the visit completed, the tough little cookie drove Manning to the airport. Manning climbed the stairs of the press plane, then turned around to wave. "And the biggest tear ran from his eye," Manning recalls. "I tell you, it would kill you. It just made that trip worthwhile."
The Saddest Trip
Dallas, 1963. Manning was in the front seat of the press bus when he heard what he thought was a firecracker. The bus rounded the corner and JFK's motorcade was gone. He saw a man throw himself on a grassy hill, beating his fists into the ground. Manning figured somebody must have shot somebody else. Soon the word spread. They'll need phones at the hospital, Manning thought right off.
"It's like anything else," he says. "The shock sets in later. It's just instilled in you--you're going to need this or that. You've still got to do your job."
The Worst Trip
During LBJ's presidency, Lady Bird Johnson made a trip to Cleveland. Manning sat next to her press secretary, who was Liz Carpenter, otherwise known as the world's worst flier. The plane hit rough weather, then was struck by lightning four times. Manning recalls that Carpenter grabbed his arm so hard it was black and blue for a week. But that wasn't all.
"After we landed in Cleveland," he says, "I could not get any of them to fly back home that night. So we organized a motorcade from Cleveland, Ohio, to Washington, D.C." He pauses. "After that, life had to get better."
No More Trips
Oddly, Manning sometimes has a hard time remembering who was president during which trip. "It all kind of runs together," he says. "Politics is politics, and nuts-and-bolts is nuts-and-bolts." What he does remember is how much simpler presidential travel was two decades ago; now, with increased security and a much larger press corps, it's become mind-boggling. On Reagan's recent trip to Europe, he needed five two-ton baggage trucks. "Lord, the network gear," he sighs. "Ever since that first time CBS tried out the mini-camera," he says, "I can remember, it was like car batteries stacked up on one of those handcarts, I guess in Jeddah, during Nixon or Ford, in a shopping center. It's completely revolutionized press coverage. Now all you need is a telephone line and boom--you can go live with it. But it's added a lot of headaches."
He doesn't think he'll do a lot of traveling from now on. He's learned how to appreciate a good meal, a hot shower and the audience he can draw with all his stories.
"Of course, everything I'm telling you," he says, laughing, "none of it's funny when it happens. None of it."