Not long after I had finished lunch, a helicopter churned up the peace along the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It came in like a bird from the sea and touched down at the end of the pool opposite the memorial. No sooner had it landed than it was joined by another. There the two brown bodies sat, nose to tail, to the delight of a church school class on a picnic, a herd of joggers and my fellow lunch-eaters.
Helicopters cannot land on the Mall without creating a stir; before long, a small crowd had assembled, without a permit, to watch the show. It was carefully cordoned off by park police officers on horses. Many suspected that the arrival of the president was imminent.
It was one of those summer days when the heat and humidity cast every movement in a spell of slow motion. The only breeze was one whipped up when the helicopters landed. The mere thought of a cold beer was enough to dissolve any motivation. It was a day for being a snail.
This easy mood emanated from the presidential motorcade, too. About 20 minutes after the helicopters landed, the president showed up. It should have been a simple event -- the president would step out of his limousine, walk up to the whirlybird, hop into the bird's beak and fly off to Camp David. But signals got crossed, and the limousine stopped in front of the wrong helicopter, the one to the rear. The car started forward again but, as it did, it ran into a pothole and lumbered like a giant turtle.
The limousine finally found its stopping spot and aligned its rear door with a perpendicular stretch of sidewalk that led to the president's helicopter. The door slid open, and the president emerged into the sticky afternoon.
He approached the helicopter with his left hand clasping the middle button of his suit jacket and his right hand waving to the crowd on either side of him. Few people bothered to wave back, either out of disagreement with the president's policies or, more likely, because of the heat.
When the president was about a third of the way to the helicopter, he stopped. The abrupt halt caught off guard a Secret Service agent, who nearly walked into the president and then jostled a little boy.
"Why did the president stop?" the boy asked his father. "Because hardly anyone waved?" An answer was not long in coming. Sprinting toward the president was a film crew that was late, evidently having been tied up in traffic.
"That's why he stopped," said the little boy's mother. "He's waiting to film a commercial."
As I watched the progress to the helicopter, I felt as something was not quite right. On a day when it was an effort to go any distance at all, I was skeptical about why the president chose to film his commercial in front of the Reflecting Pool rather than on the White House south lawn, where the helicopters usually lift off.
Again, an answer was not long in coming. Before the president stepped inside the helicopter, he turned to us and waved. This caught us by surprise; some of us waved back. It seemed a natural and spontaneous thing to do. I noticed that while some of us were waving, one of the cameras swung around and filmed our reactions. I followed my natural inclination whenever a camera is pointed at me: I ducked behind a tree.
But it was too late. For posterity, I am a member of a crowd of commoners who had come to see the president off to Camp David. On film it will appear as if the president were returning our waves, taking time out from his busy schedule to acknowledge the common man. The truth is, we were the ones who were returning waves.
This is as good an example as any of what in graduate school we called "Neustadt's formulation." Neustadt argued that, to be effective, a president has to master obscure tricks and behaviors, like seizing and maximizing initiatives, or wielding influence or building prestige among the people he chooses to influence.
On the Mall, we were the people the president chose to influence for his commercial. At times, the president has had fair success in working Neustadt's formulation, but this has been mostly over domestic and foreign leaders who expected something in return. On a hot afternoon, over common people hoping to gain nothing from the event but a quick glance of their leader, the president had a sticky time making the formula work. He couldn't apply the formulation effectively, so he fudged it with cameras.
The cameras were still rolling when the helicopters lifted off and flew into the afternoon. What a colossal effect this takeoff will have on film; the helicopters ruffling the water of the Reflecting Pool, sailing off into a desert sun over the Lincoln Memorial, where a common man sits in statue like Ramses II. I couldn't help feeling left behind.