The flight attendant is offering me curried chicken salad or ravioli with black bean salsa, with white wine or red, at no charge. No thanks, I say.
Moments later she stops by with a tray full of giant candy bars: Snickers, Butterfingers, Kit Kats. Or how about an ice cream Dove Bar?
No, thank you, really, no, I say.
It's not that I don't like to eat. It's just that today I've already had scrambled eggs, baked ham, roast beef, fried bread, filet mignon, a big brownie, cheese enchiladas, refried beans, Spanish rice and chips and salsa. In fact, I've had five meals and, try as I might, I don't think I can choke down a sixth.
I cover the White House for The Washington Post. I thought this job would be all about domestic and foreign policy, international diplomacy and political machinations at the highest levels.
Mostly, it's about eating.
At least that's how it seems on presidential trips, when White House reporters, photographers and TV crews schlep from hotel to bus to airplane to bus to speech site in a numbing cycle that is somewhat eased by, yes, pancakes and mashed potatoes and cookies and all manner of comfort foods. Eighteen-hour days aren't uncommon, and neither are days when five or six meals are offered, presumably on the theory that a press corps marches on its stomach.
This tradition of plenty has evolved over the years, no doubt abetted by politicians' realization that journalists are like lions: They don't bite you so often if you keep them well fed. The White House travel office arranges the meals and bills them to the participating news organizations. The office's director, Sue Hazard, says she tries not to waste food or overfeed people. But some reporters or TV technicians are too busy to eat at every stop, she says, and they sometimes get testy if there's not a hot meal waiting when they're ready.
"Some time ago, we got complaints because there wasn't enough food and there were cold sandwiches--we got pretty vehement complaints," Hazard says. In fact, the White House Correspondents Association insisted that a hot meal be served on any press flight lasting more than one hour. On top of that, Hazard says, some people don't eat meat, and others need low-sodium meals.
"We try to vary the food so you don't get tired of it," she says. "We try to have some ethnic food, and some local color food," as well as vegetarian and low-salt meals.
The White House traveling press corps, about 70 strong, is much too large to travel on Air Force One. Only a handful of journalists, in a rotating "pool," travel on the president's plane. The rest use chartered planes and buses, also entirely paid for by the news organizations. When we land, we board buses and head to a makeshift media center, where we file our stories, near the spot where the president is scheduled to appear. Frequently there are two plane rides and two or three filing centers per day, and there's almost always food at each one.
I decided to keep a dietary diary during President Clinton's recent four-day, seven-state tour of impoverished areas, vowing to partake, at least partially, of every meal put before me. But first, I know what you're thinking: I must be as wide as the West Wing, right?
Well, no. A 15-mile-a-week runner, I've always been fairly lean. And so far, to my amazement, my new job hasn't changed that. It's not just me. In one of those unexplained White House phenomena, like Sam Donaldson's hair, nearly all my colleagues are trim, some of them downright wiry. This is true even though most of them belly up to the filing center buffets, and lower their tray tables for the meal carts, as often as I do.
Whatever the reason--too little sleep, too much deadline adrenaline or just weird luck--calories seem to come and go on this beat like a politician's promises. My colleagues and I joke about this nervously, wondering when the immutable law of carbohydrates will catch up with us.
"Hey, it's been two hours since our last meal!" someone will exclaim in mock horror. Not to worry--the next feeding is rarely more than a bus ride or liftoff away.
Launched on a sweltering July 5, this poverty tour would be no hunger trip.
Boarding our Delta charter at Andrews Air Force Base at 7:30 a.m, we're offered Danishes and beverages before we reach our seats. I grab a croissant and orange juice.
After liftoff, the hot breakfast choice is egg frittata or almond-crusted French toast. I choose the latter, which includes fresh fruit and bits of grilled pineapple and sausage. When the Danish tray comes back around, I pass.
We land in Lexington, Ky., then make a one-hour trip to the Appalachian town of Hazard via hot, loud military cargo helicopters--the first of six such rides during the four-day tour. Welcoming us at our filing center in the Perry County Library are shrimp cocktail, fresh fruit, cookies, cheese and crackers. That's just the appetizer.
Rocky Hudson, owner of Rocky's Ribs in nearby Bulan, Ky., has been cooking since 4 a.m., and at noon he displays his wares: Fried chicken, fried catfish, sirloin, pork tenderloin, boiled potatoes, green beans, deviled eggs, fried apples, potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, marinated vegetables, sweet iced tea, corn bread and rolls. The fried chicken is succulent, the catfish is light and crispy, and the barbecue sauce for the pork--a 100-year-old family recipe, Hudson says--is tangy heaven.
"Ruth, did the president get some of this beef?" Hudson asks an employee, proudly noting that Clinton is dining from the same menu. Having fired up my laptop computer and checked for messages and wire-service stories, I load up a plate and indulge.
At 3 p.m., Hudson replaces the lunch buffet with deli sandwiches, chips and fruit and vegetable trays. I nibble a few strawberries. Clinton speaks at 4 under a broiling sun. We write and file our stories, then board the grim helicopters at 6:30 for the ride back to Lexington and our Delta charter plane. The flight attendants hand out bagged "snacks": Two huge ham sandwiches, an apple, banana, "Big One" Snickers bar and two Fantasia chocolate chip cookies. I eat only the banana, knowing a treat awaits us in Memphis.
The "Rendezvous" is nationally famous for its barbecue, and the White House travel office has arranged for it to open this Monday night just to cater our dinner. The plates are to die for: rubbed ribs, grilled chicken, pulled pork, baked beans, slaw and cold Budweisers. Unable to stop myself, I clean the platter and waddle to my hotel room by 11:30.
I'm assigned to the morning pool, so I report at 6:15 downstairs and there are bagels, fruit, juice and coffee. I skip the eggs and bacon. We helicopter to Clarksdale, Miss., where Clinton tours the hot and hard-pressed downtown. At noon in a high school filing center, the Ranchero Restaurant lays out chopped pork barbecue, slaw and wonderful rolls. Mid-meal, I realize I'm eating barbecue and baked beans for the third time in 24 hours. As I write my story, I unthinkingly gobble a whole slice of cheesecake.
By 3 p.m. we're back on our charter plane, where it's the same bagged "snack" as yesterday. I eat the apple. At 5 we're in a steamy gym in East St. Louis, Ill., where Clinton is about to speak outdoors. Marcia's Caterers provides a homey dinner: roast beef, turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans, candied yams, honey-glazed carrots and tossed salad, but there's no dessert. I sample everything but the carrots.
By 8:30 we're on the charter flight to Rapid City, S.D., and it's time for a second dinner: Spicy grilled chicken over red beans and rice, steamed vegetables, salad and a couple of beers. I eat all that, but only a few bites of the cheesecake. When the flight attendant waves a big Snickers bar, I resist, but when she returns with a Dove Bar, I crumble. I eat it all.
This 18-hour, six-meal day begins at 7 a.m. at the Rapid City Quality Inn with coffee and a bagel--a light breakfast to be sure, but enough to count. Helicopters take us to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where scrambled eggs, toast and muffins await. I skip the sausage and potatoes.
Clinton makes a late-morning speech, and we begin writing while eating the lunch served by local residents: Baked ham, roast beef au jus, rice, Indian "fry bread" dipped in a thin blueberry pudding. I skip only the soups, salad and lasagna.
At 4:30 we're on the charter flight to Phoenix, and inexplicably, I'm hungry. So I scarf down a nice little filet mignon, rice and a caramel-center brownie. Knowing what awaits in Arizona, however, I refuse the Dove Bar this time.
By early evening we're in the warehouse of La Canasta Mexican food plant in south Phoenix, where Clinton leads a round-table discussion of small business enterprises. Our file center caterer--Sylvia's La Canasta Restaurant--is part of the family operation. It's all too wonderful to resist: Chicken flautas, cheese enchiladas, refried beans, Spanish rice and fabulous guacamole, salsa and chips.
There's still one more charter flight, to Los Angeles, and of course one more meal. The 10 p.m. offering is a curried chicken salad plate or ravioli. Needless to say, there also are Snickers, Butterfingers and Dove Bars. But I can't. More so than being full, I'm simply bone-tired, weary from the heat and hankering only for sleep. We get to our hotel in Santa Monica shortly before midnight, or 3 a.m. Washington time.
It's the trip's final day, and I just can't think about food anymore. I rise early to make some calls back to Washington, then board the press bus for Anaheim, where I file one last story about the president's poverty initiatives. Our Los Angeles bureau will cover his weekend events, so I book a commercial flight home. It will entail a long cab ride, a four-hour flight to Dulles (I can't believe United's flight attendants don't offer me a Dove Bar), and a long ride to Andrews to retrieve my car.
I get home at 3 a.m. Before crawling into bed, I step on the bathroom scale. I've lost four pounds.
As I drift off, I take stock: I travel the world, covering the president of the United States. Skillful cooks offer me wonderful meals several times a day. I lose weight. As my wife suggests, maybe it's time I stopped complaining.