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Archive: Paige Reffe

Democratic "advance man" Paige Reffe has the answers to your questions. Reffe was Deputy Assistant and Director of Advance for Bill Clinton. Veteran CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante brings a top political expert into the Smoke-Filled Room each week to answer your questions:

Plante: What exactly does an advance man do?

Reffe: Advance people worry about all the details of presidential or presidential candidate travel. From who sits where on the motorcade, to how you communicate the message. They deal with who gets invited to events, who sits on the podium, who speaks and when. They deal with lighting, press filing centers, coordinating with security and balancing local political interests with national ones. The role is much more than a logistical one. They are the political ambassador who often times must mediate competing and conflicting needs, hopefully always leaving the political relations in the community or country better than they arrived. The president's or candidate's most precious commodity is their time. It is the advance person's responsibility to assure that it is maximized and hopefully that the press, both print and electronic see through pictures and hear through words the message being conveyed.

Plante: What is the hardest thing about being an advance man for the president?

Reffe: The most difficult aspect of advance work for the president or a candidate is balancing local and national or international agendas. It is explaining to mayors, governors, prime ministers or kings that you can't fit 50 pounds of flour in a 10-pound sack. They say don't worry, we can do this event in 5 minutes. Or why can't he do 10 events in a day? You have to be a diplomat at all times and learn the value of saying no to the great and the near great. Particularly in international travel, every move of the president has great implications for American foreign policy. Close coordination, instantaneous communication and including appropriate personnel in rapidly changing situations requires skill and an understanding of the substantive issues involved.

Plante: Who and how is it decided who gets to travel on Air Force 1 with the president?

Reffe: The process of manifesting Air Force 1 requires government wide coordination. Any plane the president travels on is officially Air Force 1. Whether it's the 747, which is configured for 68 passengers, or a C-20, a smaller jet which may only hold ten, the Office of Advance sends out information to affected agencies and White House offices, who then request seats for their officials. A list is compiled and reviewed by a deputy chief of staff at the White House. Numbers or individuals are litigated by the White House, those requesting seats and the chief of staff's office. Ultimately, it is the chief of staff's office that decides who will ride on the plane. For foreign trips, this would include discussions ith the congressional leadership, and in certain selected cases like the president's trip to Africa, a delegation of private sector and commercial interests. They are always hard and difficult choices.

Plante: What is the funniest thing that ever happened while you were traveling with the president?

Reffe: One of the funniest experiences I had with the president was the day I threw out the opening day pitch at Camden Yards. In the spring of 1996 the president was invited to throw out the opening day pitch at Camden Yards Oriole Park. The White House was concerned that he not repeat the mistake of President Bush in 1992. That year Bush, a former baseball player at Yale, threw out the opening pitch in Texas. I think it was at the Astrodome. The ball bounced before it reached the catcher and next day's headlines were "Bush Campaign Grounded." So we warmed up the president in the dugout area and I had a pocket full of baseballs when we were done. The president was introduced on the field and then the announcer said the president would throw out the opening pitch. The president turned to the Oriole's catcher, Chris Hoiles, and said, "Chris, do you have the ball?" Hoiles looked at him and said "No, Mr. President, don't you have the ball?" For a matter of seconds they were frozen, although 50,000 plus fans had no idea what was going on, and they weren't sure what to do. I stepped out of the dugout, took one of the balls out of my pocket and rifled a strike to home plate. Hoiles flipped the ball to the president who then threw a strike over home plate. When I got home that night I told Dylan, my five-year-old son, how his dad had thrown out the opening pitch for the Orioles.

Plante: From a campaign professional's standpoint, who has the best team - Bush or Gore?

Reffe: I can't speak to the operatives in the Bush campaign. I can, though, say that the vice president has assembled an extremely competent, highly professional campaign staff. His trip director, who is the field general on the airplane and coordinator of the traveling circus, worked with me in the White House advance office and is as good as they come. His field operatives are some of the best there are in the Democratic Party. I often say that campaign staffs don't win elections. They only lose them. Not only won't that happen in the case of the Gore team, if this election is as close as some people now think, they actually may make the difference in winning.

Plante: When a president travels abroad, say to Russia, how many people does it take, including Secret Service, diplomats, and anyone else? Is there anything spontaneous about these trips, or is there some kind of script?

Reffe: In planning a foreign trip, the Director of Advance leads a site survey team, approximately 12 people. On a visit to a foreign country, 2 to 4 months before the planned trip, meetings with the host government begin the process of undestanding what they want, and to balance that with what the United States government is trying to accomplish. Almost always, not only does the foreign government want much more than we do, but is totally unrealistic in its understanding of how you plan or move the incredible number of people involved. The White House looks for 600 or more hotel rooms in the city where the president will overnight. Up to half of these are for the traveling press. Remember, wherever the president goes, he is always commander-in-chief and leader of the free world. He needs to be able to deal with whatever is happening in the world, at that moment. Accordingly, communications and security dominate the personnel needed. From a staff perspective, a normal complement of advance people on a foreign trip would be 10-12, depending on the number of events and their complexities. Particularly with this president, there are always spontaneous events. He loves being with people, and takes every opportunity to interact with real people. During a recent trip to visit earthquake damage in Turkey, the president, first lady and Chelsea astonished people in the tent city they were visiting when they went into a tent to sip tea with a family and hear about their experience. We had planned something similar for the latter part of the trip, but the president decided himself to accept their invitation and get a real view of the issues affecting survivors.

Plante: We heard you were helping with the World Bank and IMF meetings this week. What kind of advice did you give them?

Reffe: The Metro DC Police, the Secret Service and the Treasury Department actually did a remarkable job in planning, training and then coordinating their efforts. They learned lessons from the unfortunate incidents in Seattle and were smart enough not to repeat them. The chief of police, the director of the Secret Service, the mayor of D.C. and the Secretary of the Treasury, in particular, did an outstanding job in helping all of their people understand that in the greatest democracy in the world, that we could balance freedom of expression without looting and chaos in the streets. The size of the protests were not as large, I think, because of the damage done in Seattle. Remember, most of the demonstrators really were non violent. The bulk of the damage in Seattle was accomplished by a handful of people. Accordingly, mainstream groups like the AFL-CIO and environmental organizations didn't want to be associated with anarchists and held their own protests and demonstrations in the week preceding the meeting. Further, the weather cooperated by raining incessantly on Monday, keeping the protestors away.

Plante: Would Clinton run for a third term if the law allowed it?

Reffe: Bill Clinton is the most remarkable and smartest person I've ever had the opportunity to work for and observe up close and personal. Only he can answer if he would run for a third turnBut there is no question that the country is much better off than when he took office.

Plante: Who's the most impressive world leader you've encountered?

Reffe: One of the most impressive leaders I?ve ever encountered was the president of China. In planning the president's trip to China in 1998 we pushed very hard on the Chinese government to broadcast the president live to the people of China. We believed this would showcase the new and open China. We couldn't get a positive response. My counterpart in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs finally told me that the only person who could make that decision was the president of China - no one else. On the first day of the visit the two presidents were having bilateral meetings which were running late. They were scheduled to have a joint press conference after the meeting and we needed some prep time with the president. I asked my Chinese counterpart to go into the meeting and break it up. He told me he didn?t break up meetings with his president. I told him I did. And using eastern logic I explained that it would be rude for my president to do so, so I needed to. He looked at his watch and asked why, we wouldn't be on TV live for 35 minutes. I explained that even though we pushed on the issue, we were only live in America. He said no, I meant to tell you, my president decided this morning to televise live to the people of China. Now I really had to break up the meeting. I walked into the room, passed a note to Sandy Berger: "We're live to the people in China in 35 minutes." He stared at me and then passed the note on to President Clinton. As we walked out of the room, the president turned to me and said "Are we really live in 35 minutes?" I replied, "That's what I was told, but we'll only really know if we see it on TV." The performance of the two presidents which followed was truly remarkable and the trip made history.

Plante: What was the most difficult trip to pull off?

Reffe: The most difficult trip to pull off was the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. Because members of the Jewish faith bury their dead within 24 hours, we had less than 12 hours on the ground before the president arrived. It was also the first time the Israelis actually sought our help. With 84 world leaders arriving, and with them in a state of shock, they allowed us to help in a much larger way than ever before. We not only had the usual entourage, but a congressional and private delegation. Having no place to freshen up upon their arrival we had the Secret Service put away their own bags so the traveling party could use their rooms. Upon checking in Senator Kennedy told the advance person there was no room for his nephew, now Congressman Patrick Kennedy. She looked at him and said, "Aren't you related? The senator replied, "Of course." "Fine," she said, "you can share a room." The funeral was very moving, especially the eulogy by King Hussein. Unfortunately, I als set up the president's trip to Jordan when the King died.

Plante: Do you have any nightmare stories about any of your trips?

Reffe: The president wanted to visit the troops in Sarajevo during December, 1995. NATO had recently dispatched 17,000 troops to Bosnia as part of SFOR. We took a site survey team to Sarajevo to assess the situation. The only way to get to Bosnia was on a military cargo plane - long benches, strapped to the sides for seats. While flying from Sarajevo to Tuzla we were laser targeted for mortar fire. The plane did things I didn't know a plane could do. We dropped thousands of feet in seconds, shot off flares and other assorted diversionary tactics. Thankfully, it worked and we landed safely. I did though, have to tell the President it was not safe for him to visit Sarajevo at that time. It was too dangerous and he would take away from the more important mission of the troops. I did return to Sarajevo in December, 1997 to take the president. It was a very different and much safer place.

About Bill Plante
Bill Plante is a three-time Emmy Award winner who joined the CBS News Washington Bureau in 1976. He has been covering national elections since 1968. In 1984, he was part of a CBS News team that captured an Emmy for coverage of Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign. Plante is one of the most knowledgeable and respected political correspondents in Washington. (He'll do just about anything, including bungee jumping, to get a good story.)

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