A Bogey For Nickles?

Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles -- a longtime Trent Lott rival who has called on fellow Republicans to consider ousting the embattled Mississippian as the Senate's GOP leader -- might have some explaining of his own to do about his membership in the men-only Burning Tree Club.

We hear that Senate Minority Whip Nickles, who announced Sunday that Lott's Strom Thurmond gaffe "may jeopardize his ability to enact our agenda and speak to all Americans," is a fixture at the prestigious Bethesda club that enforces Saudi-like rules when it comes to females: No women are allowed -- not as members, not even as guests.

The club's leadership is so committed to its 80-year policy of excluding women -- who are banned from the premises except during the annual spring cocktail party and by-appointment-only Christmas shopping in the pro shop -- that in the 1980s it was willing to forgo a multimillion-dollar tax break from Montgomery County to preserve its gender purity.

Yesterday Nickles' press secretary, Gayle Osterberg, confirmed that her boss, a scratch golfer, is a Burning Tree member. But she refused to comment further. We hear that the club, once a favorite golfing venue for presidents (but now off-limits to Bush administration officials), claims among its well-heeled denizens one other senator, Republican John Warner of Virginia, as well as former House Republican leader Bob Michel, Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti and CBS News "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer. Former Democratic senator Sam Nunn, who resigned with a flourish in the early 1990s when he was considering running for president, has been spotted there in recent years, but Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, a member of the posh Chevy Chase Club, refuses to golf at Burning Tree because of its discriminatory policies.

"The membership tends to be very old," said a source familiar with the facility. "It gives these fellows in their seventies and eighties a place to go. It's really an adult day-care center." Another man told us about his experience as a guest: Not only were septuagenarians golfing shirtless, he said, but when his wife arrived to pick him up, she was intercepted in the parking lot and not permitted inside.

Yesterday we unsuccessfully sought reaction to Nickles' Burning Tree membership from GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Sen.-elect Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina. Our call to the club's general manager was not returned.

Short and Easy Comeback

* A few of Jano Cabrera's fellow US Airways shuttle passengers are still grumbling that Al Gore's press secretary delayed Sunday's Washington-bound 1:30 p.m. flight. Minutes after the plane pulled away from the gate at LaGuardia, it doubled back when Cabrera alerted the crew to an "emergency" and asked to be let off.

One disgruntled passenger e-mailed us yesterday that she was not amused to learn that Cabrera's so-called emergency was the ex-veep's sudden decision to end what we always call his "long and grueling comeback" by announcing his non-candidacy to CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl.

"This personal emergency apparently was a message he received on a portable electronic device (that should have been turned off, as the flight attendant noted after she escorted Mr. Cabrera from the plane)," wrote our informant, who asked for anonymity. "In this day and age, flying can be stressful enough even without thoughtless and inconsiderate acts by others."

Cabrera responded: "I sincerely apologize to all for delaying the departure of a commercial jet airliner. In fairness, I do want to point out that the staff at US Airways never asked me who I worked for or the nature of my business emergency (I never said it was personal, nor did the pilot describe it as such . . .). As we had literally just pulled away from the terminal moments beforehand, they said it was not a problem and returned to the gate where I promptly deplaned, doing my best to appear like I was a busy [George] Bush staffer."

Cabrera told us he had answered his cell phone to hear Gore aide Lisa Berg "asking if it was possible for me to come back to the hotel, but she didn't say what the emergency was. Gore announcing that he wouldn't run just never entered my mind."

Cabrera, who hopes to secure a job with an active 2004 presidential candidate, added, "All that 'long and grueling comeback' stuff -- you've got nothing more to write on that."

But there's always 2008. The comeback might just be longer and more grueling than we imagined.

THIS JUST IN...

* Barney, the White House Scottish terrier, scampered into the Roosevelt Room yesterday and interrupted President Bush's reading of "The Night Before Christmas" to 60 third-graders. The pooch's sudden appearance actually frightened the children, and Bush had to concede: "He's pretty ferocious-looking when you first look at him." After reading aloud one page of the Christmas classic -- "Pretty exciting so far, isn't it?" he asked -- he handed the book over to First Reader Laura Bush.