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Jewish World Review Oct. 31, 2002 / 26 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Roger Simon

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Politicians - and the reporters who cover them -- are learning to sacrifice | WASHINGTON Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack made an important decision this week: He decided he and his wife would no longer fly together in small planes.

And for at least one day this week, he decided not to fly at all because the weather did not look very good.

With the election just days away and in a geographically large state like Iowa, where it easily can take you at least two hours to drive between campaign stops, this is a big sacrifice.

But it is a sacrifice some politicians are now willing to make. Vilsack's opponent, Republican Doug Gross, also decided to travel the state by car on Tuesday because the cloud ceiling was low.

"Sometimes, you push it too far" when flying in bad weather, Vilsack said.

Nobody knows, or probably will ever know, if the people flying the small plane carrying Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife, his daughter and staff members had pushed it too far last Friday, when the plane crashed, killing everyone on board.

But it is very much on the minds of the people who, in the past, have routinely traveled in bad weather on small planes because they just "had to" get to the next campaign stop.

"I just thought about the surviving children (of the Wellstones)," Vilsack said. "I realize how devastated they are. ... I don't think I should put that possibility before our children." The Vilsacks have two sons.

Just about a year ago, on Oct. 16, a small plane carrying Missouri Sen. Mel Carnahan and a staff member and piloted by Carnahan's son crashed in storm, killing everyone on board.

The list of politicians who have been killed on small planes, as well as the list of near misses, is a long one.

Lauch Faircloth crashed in a campaign plane when he was running for governor of North Carolina in 1983.

"I was thinking about it this afternoon when I heard about Paul (Wellstone)," Faircloth told The Washington Post recently. Faircloth admitted that he flew in bad weather all the time when he was a candidate.

"You always feel the pressure to be somewhere. In your heart, you know you shouldn't be flying. The pilot probably knows it, too," he said.

Faircloth said he had a number of close calls, but on Aug. 22, 1983, he and some members of his staff were taking off on a wet runway. "We hit a big puddle of water, and it skewed the plane to the runway," he said. "Instead of going straight out, the plane veered into the side of a mountain. The plane went through trees, knocking them down like it was a bulldozer. It fell into the headwaters of Lake James. The water saved us. The plane was on fire from one end to the other, and the water extinguished the fire."

"Miraculously -- the plane was beat all to pieces -- the door opened, and I was able to get away from it," he said. Faircloth swam away as fast as he could. "Before we were 50 feet away, the plane went back into flame and was burned to a crisp."

I have a thick file of campaign plane accidents. Like most political reporters who have flown with candidates for a number of years, I have my own list of near misses and have engaged in "I can't believe we made it" stories with other reporters at the end of the day.

I remember when Walter Mondale's plane skidded down a runway when he ran for president in 1984, when an engine on Gary Hart's plane burst into flame, and when John Glenn's plane narrowly missed a control tower in New Hampshire while trying to land in a snowstorm.

I will never forget Jesse Jackson's campaign plane in 1984. The plane had so many problems that Jackson asked the Secret Service to check it over one day before he would get back on it. The plane got a clean bill of health, and we all climbed back on board.

In January 1985, while carrying charter passengers back to Minneapolis from a gambling junket in Reno, the same plane with the same pilot crashed, killing 67 people.

It was a jet, and I still fly on jets, because I don't really have any choice. And I know that many more people are killed on the highways each year than in air crashes.

But I won't fly on small planes anymore. I don't care who the candidate is or where he is going or why he might want to "push it too far" before Election Day.

It's just not worth it. Not to me, not to the candidate, not to his family, not to his survivors, not to anyone.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate