A fine man named Richard D. Obenshain, who had a good chance to be elected the next Republican senator from Virginia, was killed in the crash of a light plane last week, and that got me to thinking how frenzied, even schizophrenic, the life of politicians has become.
No sane man would submit to the schedule demands most pols endure in this fast moving, high-strung time for politics. Reasonable men are at the dinner table with their loved one or loved ones when elected officials are being propelled through foul weather enroute to tyrannical fundraisers or meetings termed "politically crucial."
And so Obenshain, the dogged candidate, was going home to Richmond from a farmers' picnic, where he had campaigned, when the two-engine plane provided him by an ardent Republican crashed and burned.
It seems when "name" people are killed in air crashed they are always in small planes. Think of the personalities who died that way: Knute Rockne, Will Rogers, Mike Todd, Rocky Marciano, Tony Lima, Walter Reuther.
When high rollers are in a hurry or must get to places not served by commercial carriers, they call for chartered planes and helicopters. While commercial and general air travel is quite safe, the record for small, private planes isn't as good as it is for the airlines.
Last year, some 1,395 people died in general aviation accidents (those involving non-commercial carriers) in the United States. Some 75 were killed in commercial airline crashes, but if the Canary Island collision on the ground involving Pan Am and KLM is added, the number comes to 654.
In recent years, mishaps involving small planes have taken their toll of politicians in a hurry. The most dramatic crash killed House Democratic leader Hale Boggs and Congressman Nick Begich in Alaska in 1972. California Congressman Jerry Pettis was killed when he crashed his own plane in 1975. About one year ago, the Missouri Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate Jerry Litton, his wife and two children were killed while flying to a celebration of his victory in the primary.
Last year, the Pennsylvania secretary of transportation, William H. Sherlock, and Richard Frame, a prominent state senator, died in a similar crash. Go back to 1962, and the record shows a Montana governor, Donald G. Nutter, killed in a plane crash.
No political family has suffered from the odds of air travel like the Kennedys. The late president's sister was killed in a plane crash. So were Ethel Kennedy's parents and her brother as well. Sen. Edward Kennedy was severely injured when a two-engine plane he was riding in crashed in June 1964. Two other passengers died in that accident, and Sen. Birch Bayh and Mrs. Bayh were injured.
It seems there is always one more hand to shake, one more meeting to attend, one more influential party official to call on.
I have traveled in private planes many times, usually with politicians. Once, my hands went clammy when we were forced to land on a strip of Illinois sod. During my two years of tracking and flying with Nelson Rockefeller, there were moments of near terror because that strong-minded man has a way of persuading his pilots to try one more time for that seemingly closed field.
I can also remember Sen. Jacob Javits nervously telling a pilots as he groped for a shot at a small-town runway, "I don't have to make that Sullivan County meeting tonight."
Politicians hold power and dispense privilege, but, unlike ancient rulers, they are not protected by God or divine right. Quite the opposite. Their schedules force them into travel situations where safety margins are stretched and they become more mortal than mortals.
It isn't always that single- or twin-engine plane that soars into peril in the name of representative democracy. There have been many careering automobile rides in which the politician-passenger grits his teeth and utters invocations to the deity that the damned-fool driver doesn't hurtle into a lethal head-on or a looming telephone pole.
Politicians give up those nights by hearth and home because a fire burns in them. They charge on, even when most people would stay back. They feel they must show command and bravado, lest voters perceive them as stick-in-the-muds. They know about the other politicians killed, shot at the demented or even wasted in health by impossible schedules, but like ancient gladiators or toothless prize fighters, they struggle into the arena again.