A talkative and opinionated fellow -- never mind exactly who -- ambled to the back of Air Force One during President Clinton's trip home from Israel Thursday night, plopped down in the aisle, and proceeded to hold forth for a group of reporters.
By the time the 747 landed back at Andrews Air Force Base, this person, intimately familiar with the thinking of Clinton, had unburdened himself of nearly three hours of that thinking. There were deep ruminations on such topics as the future of Middle East and the meaning of the Bible. And there were vagrant musings on topics as diverse as the NCAA basketball tournament and the peach cobbler served on board.
It was the world according to Clinton -- but at the insistence of the White House, the views may be attributed only to "the highest authority."
Taking the controversial Washington practice of anonymous sources and "background conversations" to an unprecedented level, White House press secretary Michael McCurry made his boss available to the small group of reporters who travel on Air Force One with the president, under condition that there be no note-taking, and no direct attribution.
McCurry, according to a pool report filed by the reporters for colleagues traveling on a separate plane, wanted Clinton's comments to be on "psych-background."
The "psych" part, McCurry explained yesterday, is to let reporters who cover Clinton have a better sense of his thoughts and feelings, while the "background" part is to prevent Clinton from making unintended news during an aerial bull session.
But what the White House hoped would be a low-key chat caused a stir, nonetheless.
Many reporters and commentators said the nation's commander in chief has no business trying to announce his thoughts without the accountability of having them directly reported. Some others said they welcomed the attempt to make Clinton more accessible, and reduce the chilly formality that usually governs the relationship.
In the past, Clinton and McCurry have complained about unidentified sources, saying reporters use them to air unfair criticism of the administration.
But McCurry said Thursday's conversation was an experiment to see if it might be easier to join 'em rather than beat 'em.
"If they're going to go and talk to deep sources," McCurry said, "they might as well talk to one who actually knows what the president is thinking."
McCurry said he and Clinton have been "looking for ways to encourage less formal exchanges" with the news media. The hope is reporters will use the information in the future without attribution to be able to write or speak more authoritatively about what the president thinks.
But he admitted that so far his attempts to loosen the mood have been a flop.
Clinton felt burned the last time he held forth at length on Air Force One, on a trip home from California last September. Then, he launched a long and discursive lecture on the mood of the country in a time of great economic and social change.
But the thing that seized the headlines and earned him a dose of Republican ridicule was his impolitic remark that the country seemed to be in a "funk."
On the trip home from Israel, McCurry said, Clinton wanted to avoid that kind of "gotcha" story.
But Gene Gibbons, a veteran White House correspondent for Reuter news service who was not part of the rotating pool on the trip from Israel, said there were problems with Clinton's effort to unwind with reporters. For one thing, he noted, the news people aboard Air Force One were not there representing simply their own organizations.
They were part of a "pool" that under rules established by the White House press corps obligates reporters to share whatever they learn while with the president with other news organizations.
The pool report sharing Clinton's comments -- but noting the restrictions on their use -- was distributed to at least several dozen news organizations. Although the conversation was supposedly private, the countless copies of the pool report floating around town call into doubt how private such a conversation really is.
Marlin Fitzwater, a White House press secretary under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, said presidents are often in an "expansive mood" when returning from long trips, but that "the Air Force One pool is a very limited and bad vehicle for trying to have these kind of discussions." A president "is prone to saying things he shouldn't say," while trying to pose his comments on a private basis puts pool reporters in an "impossible" position about what to share with colleagues, Fitzwater said.
Nor should people assume a president does not have a political agenda even when he seems merely to be shooting the breeze, Fitzwater said. "Why do you want to convince 12 people in the pool what a good guy you are unless they're going to tell the rest of the nation" in future stories, he said. "Every president feels like if they knew me, they'd love me."
Marvin Kalb, a former Washington reporter and now a media scholar at Harvard, said background conversations are fine as long as they complement on-the-record discourse. "Background information is extremely valuable," said Kalb, adding Clinton deserves praise for his long session. "You're enriching the story."
Clinton's conversation came in two parts. The first was a half-hour after taking off from Tel Aviv, when the president came to the back of the plane wearing jeans, a casual shirt, and sneakers, and chatted for about an hour. Several hours later, he returned and talked for another two hours.
The topics ranged, according to the pool report, from what books he was reading (he said he hasn't read "Primary Colors," the anonymously authored novel based on his 1992 campaign), Russia's problems "mixing economic freedom with order," to his routine parental worrying about daughter Chelsea dating and his imminent sadness over her departure from home for college.
The Associated Press, which was part of the pool, reported "there was no ground-breaking news in the president's remarks."
Gibbons, the Reuter correspondent, professed ambivalence. On the one hand, it is useful to see the president as "more than a one-dimensional figure." On the other, while "it's nice to have a chat with the president, is that really your function?"