New Account Of The Bosnia Trip: Did A CBS News Editor's Keen Eye Save Hillary's Life?

This post is written by guest blogger Francois Bringer, a former CBS News producer and current documentary filmmaker. You can read Attkisson's report on Hillary Clinton's 1996 Bosnia trip here.
(White House Photo)
Yes this is me, in the middle of this picture, listening intently to two very famous American women chatting politely aboard a U.S. military plane. We were on our way to Bosnia to visit the troops, almost twelve years ago to this day. The shot was taken on the fourth leg of a grueling First-Lady-does-Europe-in-five-days trip.

I was a CBS News pool producer then. With my CBS colleagues, we were responsible for providing everything that a U.S. TV correspondent would need to cover such a journey. That means we handled all the video, interviews, natural sound and edits from the trip you may have seen in the news on CNN, ABC, NBC or of course CBS.

Watch Sharyl's March 25, 1996, report on Clinton's arrival in Bosnia:

I got to meet and work alongside then-First Lady Hillary Clinton for this whole crazy week. In a typical day, she would meet the highest ranking official in the country, visit ruins and museums, admire the work of charities, kiss babies, have lunch with dignitaries … and then dinner with leaders of the opposition. At every stop she'd answer the band of reporters' questions. Mrs. Clinton was simply astonishing. Her unfailing (and effortless) politeness with everyone, her interest in the historic or the mundane, her well-briefed self and steely composure after days of this schedule, her ability to keep smiling (and stay chic!) were simply outstanding. Only very gifted beings can project such strength over such long hours – and she did it. She had it. She did not make a faux-pas the whole week.

Which brings us back to the landing in Tuzla.

The mood on the flight can be understood quite well from the picture of Clinton, CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson and me. Three relaxed professionals on their way to a job. We had just been served food and drinks. The perfectly attired First Lad was having an amiable chat with the CBS crew. There were at least 50 members of the press corps alone on the plane that day and Clinton had a word for each and every one of us. There is no restlessness in this picture, no sense of going "in country," which was our way of saying "close to the front line."

The only anxiety for me was that I had brought Joe Klein's book Primary Colors along to read. It was very critical of the Clinton White House. If you sense a concerned look on my face in the photo, it is only is because I was worried it would fall off my bag as the first lady spoke with us.

Another tense moment came when the flight commander told us to don the bullet-proof jacket that had been given to us for the landing. He said it was standard practice while landing in a dangerous area. My friend (and CBS editor) Mark Ludlow and I, who fancied ourselves old veteran war horses – we had landed in war-zones before – took the jackets we knew were only flak jackets (which meant they would only stop shrapnel), folded them neatly in four and … sat on them. Of course, that guaranteed maximum protection to a precise part of our anatomy.

But this move immediately drew angry looks and remarks from two female White House magazine reporters who called us machos and useless show-offs. They were right of course. They never talked to us again on the trip.

Fortunately , this is the only flak we took on that trip.

The C17 we were on, a cargo plane as long and high as an apartment block, proceeded to land "military style," banking nose down towards the Tuzla air strip while dropping decoys to deter heat seeking missiles. They sound like things hitting the hull, it is quite eerie. We had a perfect landing, though.

We deplaned, first lady and all. They were GI's and marines in full gear, mud everywhere. It was a cold and gray. The air was very still once the plane shut off its engines. I had time to have my picture taken with both of Clinton's personal flight attendants in front of the plane, my arms on their shoulders.

When Clinton's press plane left Athens airport two days later for the United States, CBS News Engineer Les Brewer was on the tarmac watching the aircraft taxi on the apron. He noticed that one of the cargo latches was still wide open. He ran to a Secret Service member who radioed the plane to stop at once. An arm came out of the opened latch, thanked him with a thumb and shut it tight this time.

Whatever Sharyl's story might have done to Clinton's campaign last week, it is funny to remember that the alert eye of a CBS staffer had probably saved Hillary's life (and the lives of half the Washington press corps!) that day.

To survive such an adventure, you need to enjoy tricky logistics, a healthy dose of journalistic savvy and a great deal of good humor. Whether you're stationed in an army base motel or a four-star Turkish palace, I promise you will not sleep more than three hours a night. You deal with harassed White House press liaison people (who all love you on the first day, get to know you on the second, hate you on the third, make up on the fourth and leave on the fifth).

Despite all this, it's one of the best jobs around, believe me. But on three hours of sleep, I never did get around to reading Primary Colors.