At 1:05 this afternoon, your time, some four hours out over the Atlantic, they began serving the caviar. And the chilled vodka. And the 10-year-old St. Emilion. And the lobster thermidor. Much earlier, if you wished you could sample the Perrier champagne at breakfast, or the bloody marys, or screwdrivers.
Now the point isn't that the President's press entourage is embarking on some bacchanal at taxpayers' expense. It's merely another indication that, protestations about the excesses of the old imperial presidency aside, traveling with the American chief executive is still very first class indeed. For the press, that is, if not the President.
Last night, before setting out on this swing across the oceans and continents, the President was saying he wasn't at all comfortable with the formal trappings of his office. Yet here he was toright, standing bareheaded in a chill rain and gusty wind, taking the first of what will be many ceremonial salute's these next grueling days.
And his every word, every step, will be recorded, reported, assesed and disseminated by an army of correspondents surrounding him. Two full commercial planes, in addition to his Air Force One, accompanied him from Andrews Air Force Base this morning. They are transporting 166 journalist.
The three television networks alone have sent 75 people to cover this expedition. There are more commentators and pundits than diplomats on this journey. ABC, for instance, has sent no less than seven network correspondents, headed by Barbara Walters, a nd seven producers, to say nothing of the remaining camera crews and technicians.
What real news they will have to report is problematical at this point. This, after all, is the trip that was announced with what seemed such haste in the wake or the Beri Lance fall last September and then advanced around the world by the White House, and then postponed, the ostensible reason given was that the Presiden didn't want to be away while the energy legislation was threading its crucial way through the Congress.
Now, in different circumstances, a shortened itinerary, and with an energy bill still in limbo, the President is setting out on his first extensive foreign trip.
While there has been much criticism about the lack of cosmic meaning of this journey, the timing turns out to be more favorable to the President after all. He is putting his first year behind him, and his schedule places him in the midst of the most dramatic peace ventures there in decades.
The President's advisors, in the inevitable briefing sessions, have been saying that this trip emphasizes the changing nature of today's world. Which is probably about what every President would say about any foreign trip.
"Our point of departure," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, the President's national security assistant, "is the view that we are living in a time in which the world is experiencing the most extensive and the most intensive transformation in its entire history . . . A world that was politically and socially passive is now becoming truly activist. The consequence of this is a rising crescendo of political and social demands worldwide. It thus represents an altogether new reality in the totality of our common experience."
The President himself has been less grand in his stated reasons for his journey. He wants to talk about energy peace, common problems, and human rights, he said on television last night on the eve of his departure.
He was as good as his word tonight upon arriving at the airport here. Standing there in the raw wind and rain, flanked by a Polish honor guard bearing long bayonets unsheathed, he spoke of justice and human rights and freedom - and of a time in which ideological labels hhave lost their meaning.
Off to his, left a larger banner proclaimed the official welcome: "Long live lasting and victorious peace," it read.
The distinction between peace and victory was somehow fitting in that somber and bleak airport setting.
Then the President moved out solemnly for the first of his motorcades; and the Polish troops goose-stepped off the glistening black tarmac, their boots besting out a tatoo in the night.
But then you've already seen that live and in color, if that army of TV technicians was doing its job. And, of course, if you chose to tune in at all.