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Fire on the Plane

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With “The West Wing’s” TV presidential campaign in full swing, many people are asking me two questions. First, “Is that what it’s really like?” Of course not, it’s TV. Scheduling meetings and message meetings are never that jazzy. They’re more like watching the Lawrence Welk Show on a slow day. And the second question, I’ve been getting is, “What was your favorite part of the campaign?”

What surprises them is my answer, “The night the plane caught fire.”

It was the Friday before the election and we had been on that plane since Senator John Edwards was selected as the vice presidential nominee. We lived on that plane. It was home.

We had just been at a rally in Raleigh. It was the last time we were in Senator Edwards’ home state and it was the kind of rally that wakes you up. Twelve thousand people packed in an event hall. Jon Bon Jovi played an acoustic set. And Senator Edwards gave a Senator Edwards kind of speech: personal, rowdy without tearing anyone down, and uplifting.

Those kinds of events pulled us through—especially during those final days when two hours of sleep was a luxury and “Guess Where Your Are” was the game you played in your head. Those big events made us believe that “Hope was on the way.” Or as Jack and Emma Claire would yell on the plane, “Soap is on the way.” There was some heartache in the middle of all that hope, too. That was the day Elizabeth and the Senator learned about the lump and the fear of breast cancer.

We climbed on the plane for the fourth time that day and it was packed—packed with staff, Secret Service, and the press and we all headed toward Ohio or maybe it was West Virginia?

After the last event of the day, we’d often have a drink to unwind. The press was so serious about unwinding that they even had a disco ball and lights at the back of the plane. My writing was done and so I had a drink.

From where I was sitting, I couldn’t hear the scream, “Fire!” But I heard the Secret Service make a lot of noise. My co-workers stood and looked toward the back of the plane. The flight crew ran by and our chief of staff walked back.

“What happened?” I asked.

“All of the overhead compartments just opened up. Don’t worry,” a friend said, from across the aisle.

She lied, but for good reason. This plane had had problems before. There was the aborted take-off in Cleveland and the generator failure. The landing gear lights didn’t like to go on and we would sometimes slow the plane down in mid-flight to test them. It is very unnerving going so slow at such a height and the noise of the gear going down is deafening. It was common to see the engineer race from the cockpit to the back, and messages from family and non-political friends often started with, “I saw your plane on CNN, again.” So whenever there was a commotion or we were landing in thick fog or landing on some West Virginia hilltop, I said a little prayer.

But that night, I had no idea what was going on. My friend kept staring at the back of the plane, sipping her drink like she was watching a sit-com. I drank more and asked, “All that noise for the overhead compartments?” “The guns,” my friend reminded me. “They’re making sure one didn’t go off.” Right I thought—the Secret Services’ guns.

My friend stopped looking at the back, looked right at me and said, “There was a fire. It’s out.” She signaled to one of the flight crew and then made small circles with her hand around our area. “Could we get some more wine for her and maybe a fist full of pills?”

It’s not that I hate flying. I just don’t like to know about the problems when we are, and flames on a plane with oxygen and fuel in cramped quarters is not a good thing. I didn’t really know how dangerous this was until the summer. A good friend of mine’s cousin is a pilot. I ticked off our list of problems and most he didn’t flinch at—until I said, “Fire.”

We had to turn back to Raleigh because FAA rules say that when “Fire!” is yelled on a plane you have to land immediately. Fire engines greeted us on the runway and fire fighters boarded the plane. It turns out a TV cameraman’s battery exploded and made a large fireball. He was fine, but the seat and seat belt were burned.

There was something so human about that crazy scene and that’s why I love it so much. Out of my window there was Jack acting like any young boy: walking outside to meet the fire fighters. Emma Claire was sleeping next to her Mom. The Senator and Elizabeth were talking. Staff and press and service were laughing. It felt like a normal Friday night: friends, family, and co-workers spending time together.

A presidential campaign tests your humanity and you won’t see that on TV. The traveling, hotels, and the pace can strain even the most even-keeled. And when that fire hit, humanity hit that plane too—ours. We were reminded that in the middle of the grandest of chaos, life can stop and life can go on.

So I wish I had the politically correct answer to my favorite part of the campaign a year ago. That it was the extraordinary people we met and fought for; the chance to see this glorious country, or the opportunity to change it.

They were important, but it was that fire. The human scene in the middle of chaos, the blessing that it didn’t get too bad, and the chance we had to take off again and live on to fight another day.