- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

Landing with Nancy

Who in Washington this past week didn’t have something to say about President Bush’s historic landing and stay aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln — a visit derided by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, as “showmanship?”

Actually, if Mr. Byrd had done his homework he would have realized that Mr. Bush was merely continuing a presidential seagoing tradition launched by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957, when Ike spent the night aboard the Saratoga.

Going back even further into history, Otto Kreisher of the Copley News Service discovered that every U.S. president since John Tyler in 1844 spent time on a Navy vessel. The two Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin — both one-time assistant Navy secretaries — lead the pack in visits.

Teddy visited at least six warships as president (as well as a primitive submarine in 1905), and FDR spent “months” aboard 12 different warships, including numerous wartime voyages for overseas conferences with Allied leaders.

President George Bush, Mr. Kreisher continues, followed FDR’s example of using warships for security, bunking aboard the cruiser Belknap during a 1989 summit with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta, and again on the amphibious assault ship Tripoli during a 1992 visit to U.S. troops in Somalia.

John F. Kennedy became the first president to visit a carrier, touring the USS Oriskany in 1963 off San Diego, and later spending the night aboard the USS Kitty Hawk. Lyndon B. Johnson spent the night aboard the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise in 1967 while off the coast of California.

Richard M. Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan all bunked aboard warships. Even Bill Clinton, no big supporter of the military, slept aboard the USS George Washington in 1994 as it steamed from Britain to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

Even first ladies land aboard aircraft carriers. Or at least one did.

On July 17, 1985, while covering the Reagan White House at the ripe young age of 27, I was picked to fly by helicopter with first lady Nancy Reagan and land on the aircraft carrier USS America, which was conducting maneuvers 25 miles off the Maryland coast.

President Reagan had been scheduled to make the trip, but 24 hours earlier he underwent emergency surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his colon. Rather than canceling the long-planned visit, Mrs. Reagan — albeit hesitantly — agreed to go in her husband’s place.

It was one of my more memorable presidential excursions. Shortly after landing on the carrier, I was surprised to find myself alone with Mrs. Reagan in the privacy of the commanding officer’s cabin, where she had asked for a place to “freshen up” before addressing the 5,000 officers and men aboard.

Her hair blown around from the windy flight deck, Mrs. Reagan at one point turned to a mirror in the adjoining “head,” then poked her head out and asked me, “How do I look?”

Taken aback, I assure you, I managed to offer, “You look great,” wondering the whole time whether I had overstepped the bounds of what a White House correspondent should tell a first lady.

Mrs. Reagan was to have spent the night aboard the carrier, but, as I observed at the time, she was definitely out of her element aboard the big ship, curtailing her visit to be closer to her recuperating husband.

Chinese tailors

Before the close of business last week, a U.S. congressman introduced the Economic Homeland Security Act, which should make everybody short of the Chinese more secure.

The EHSA offered by Rep. Robin Hayes, North Carolina Republican, also establishes a “Buy American” mandate for the procurement process of the newly created Department of Homeland Security. And for good reason.

“A few years back,” Mr. Hayes notes, “we had an unfortunate episode where the U.S. Army purchased over 1 million black berets for U.S. soldiers.”

And the problem was?

“The problem was that a majority of those berets were made in China, and I think we can all agree — that is ridiculous.”

Teacher for life

There are tens of thousands of deserving schoolteachers recognized every year during Teacher Appreciation Week, yet few of them will ever equal Minnesota educator Verna Ziegenhagen, singled out Friday on the floor of Congress.

“Throughout her 53 years as a teacher, Verna Ziegenhagen instructed and inspired the students of German Lake, Le Center, Heidelberg, Lexington and Le Seuer, Minnesota,” said Republican Rep. John Kline.

But it was at the conclusion of her 53-year tenure that the teacher made headlines — actually transplanting to the property she owned in rural Le Center a 100-plus-year-old country schoolhouse, which she proceeded to fill with the mementos of her teaching career.

“What began as a personal journey to preserve the memories is now a museum of tribute to her former students and, by extension, a shrine to her own dedication and sacrifice,” the congressman observed.

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