It wasn't a big story, but at the same time it wasn't a small story -- and it did have a tiny connection with the budget fight.
It seems that two Saturdays ago the secretary of the Air Force, Donald B. Rice, took an Air Force jet to South Bend, Ind., with his wife and an aide, Lt. Col. Carl Tickel, when Notre Dame was playing the Air Force Academy. The cost to the taxpayer was $5,700.
Critics of the junket felt that it was a waste of taxpayers' money, and the trip was an outrage to Pentagon cost-cutting.
But Secretary Rice's spokesman, Lt. Col. Darrell Hayes, insisted that the jet flight was "official business." The only reason that Rice flew out there was to discuss Notre Dame ROTC business with the cadets at the school, according to Hayes. Hayes was quoted as saying, "It was an official visit, and as secretary he is authorized to use Air Force aircraft for official business."
Witnesses at South Bend, including the colonel in charge of the Notre Dame Air Force ROTC, claim they didn't notice Rice conducting any business at all.
Because the stories vary so much we can only guess what really happened. As one who always takes the word of an Air Force spokesman as opposed to some crabby civilian, here is my scenario:
It was a quiet Saturday morning at the Pentagon, and Secretary Rice turned to his aide, Col. Tickel. "I'm bored," Rice told him. "I wish I had something to do today."
Tickel replied, "Why don't we go out to Notre Dame and review the troops?"
"That's a good idea," Rice said. "I like surprise visits. Can we order up an airplane?"
"Of course we can," the colonel responded. "There is nothing more official on your schedule than this trip."
They boarded the plane and Rice, his wife and Tickel flew out, arriving at 1 o'clock. When they reached the campus there was no one around. They kept walking until they saw a stadium and heard the roars coming from it.
"What is it?" Rice asked.
Tickel peeked through a hole in the fence.
"I think they're playing football, sir."
"What's football?" Rice wanted to know.
"It's a game that Notre Dame plays with a very funny-shaped ball."
Rice said, "We should go in because all our ROTC cadets might be there."
The three went inside. It was timeout, and Tickel yelled, "All Air Force ROTC students come down from the stands and meet the secretary of the Air Force."
Five thousand students rose from their seats and gathered around the Rices, completely ignoring the game.
The secretary told them, "I want you to study hard and be good to your mothers." They all cheered. Rice continued, "Never take a $3 bill from a drunken sailor. Thank you, gentlemen." The students broke into the Air Force hymn and saluted as Rice with his wife and Tickel walked out of the stadium.
Tickel said, "Don't you want to see the game, sir? It's Notre Dame versus the Air Force."
"No, this is a strictly business trip. I'll see them play some other time when I'm paying for it myself."
That, dear reader, is the true story of what happened with Rice's plane. If you would rather believe Col. Hayes's version, I'd like to tell you a story about a grizzly bear that went into the bar for a drink.