By Michael Abramowitz
ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE, July 6--We're flying to Hokkaido, the northern Japanese island where President Bush will attend his final meeting of the Group of Eight, the world's leading industrial powers whose leaders vconvene once a year to thrash out carefully worded communiques on siuch issues as global warming, development in Africa and terrorism.
I thought I would try to reinstate our On The Plane blog, our periodic dispatches about traveling with the president and the secretary of state. Most of the rest of the White House press crew is already in Japan, having left on Friday on a charter: Because of the vagaries of the rotation, it's my turn to be part of a tiny pool of about a dozen wire reporters, photographers and television crew members to be traveling in a press cabin in the back of the plane, sequestered from a posse of senior staffers traveling with the president on one of his last foreign trips.
It's a roughly 12-hour flight, marked mostly (from the press perspective) by three well prepared meals by the Air Force One staff and a constant stream of movies on the airplane's on-demand system ("The Last King of Scotland," "Fools Gold," "21," and "Little Miss Sunshine").
It is also marked by the staple of these flights, the on-board gaggle by some senior staffer about the trip--in which the reporters gather around some senior White House staffer and fire away questions. On this flight, the victims are press secretary Dana Perino and NSC staffers Dan Price and Dennis Wilder, who seem mostly determined not to make any news and instead offer bromides that seem largely aimed at satisfying foreign sensitivies. Thus Wilder, the senior White House staffer on Asia, tells us that the president is making it clear that Japan "is the cornerstone of American foreign policy in Asia," in advance of Bush's meeting Sunday with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.
Wilder, a former Asia analyst at the CIA, does offer a small sliver of news--the disclosure that the G8 leaders will probably denounce Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe over his widely disbelieved elections last month.
Late in the flight, Perino came ambling back to offer a "birthday" news: July 6 is the president's 62 birthday and his senior staff had a little birthday celebration for the president's at around 11 p.m. Washington time (noon on Sunday in Japan.) The senior staff gathered in the Air Force One conference room, and a steward put a single birthday candle on a coconut cake. They dimmed the lights, and the president came in with Laura Bush,and the group said "Surprise" and sang "Happy Birthday," according to Perino.
"He dutifully pretended to be surprised," Perino said.
The staff presented Bush a present: a simple wooden box made from a giant oak tree that fell on the White House lawn in 2007 (planted by Benjamin Harrison's daughter in 1892): some of the wood had been sent to Texas to be be fashioned into a small box (one and half feet by one foot) that was filled with notes and cards from staff.
It was the second time Bush has been feted for his birthday in two days: Bush had friends and staff over to the White House for a July 4 celebration, and presidential aides were girding for another "surprise" Sunday night when the Bushes have a social dinner with Fukuda and his wife.
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