‘You have a phone call in the cockpit. It’s the White House’

During a 12-year sabbatical from a chosen career as a newspaperman, I served three members of Congress, two presidents and a national trade association. That period brings back a lot of memories.

In the fall of 1982, I sat on a TWA jet from Albuquerque, NM, to St. Louis, working on a mailer for the Congressional campaign of Rep. Manuel Lujan when a flight attendant approached.

She asked: “Are you Mr. Thompson?”


“Could you be Mr. Thompson the White House might be trying to reach?”  That question brought some raised eyebrows from the couple sitting across the aisle.  I had a black full beard and long hair that covered my ears and reached my shoulders. When traveling, I often dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers without socks — my attire on this flight.

“That is possible,” I answered.

“The captain needs to see you in the cockpit.  You have a phone call.”

This was before handheld wireless phones or air phones on planes. In the cramped cockpit of a Boeing 727, the captain asked to see some identification.  I fished my Congressional ID card out of my wallet and he gave me a headset with a microphone.  The angry voice of presidential advisor Lee Atwater spilled out of the headphone speakers.

“I’m told you turned down a visit by the president next week in Albuquerque,” he said.  “What is the goddamned hell is wrong with you!”

I explained our polls showed a visit by president Ronald Reagan could cost Lujan votes in the campaign.  Reagan had hit a rough patch in his presidency and his approval numbers were down.  We suggested the president visit Alamogordo in Southern New Mexico.  Congressman Joe Skeen has a safe seat.

“You’re a fucking idiot,” Atwater screamed.  “The president will call the congressman and tell him he wants to come to Albuquerque.  He won’t turn the president down.”

“Yes, he will turn the request down,” I said.  “Manuel Lujan likes Reagan but he loves being a Congressman.  He must decline the invitation.”

“We shall see,” Atwater said as the line went dead.

I thanked the captain and went back to my seat under the gaze of passengers who wondered what a guy dressed like a roustabout might have to do with the White House.  The White House has an operator who can, and often does, track down someone.  It was my first phone call from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  It would not be the last.

Had to change planes in St. Louis for a connecting flight to Washington and a TWA representative stopped me as I walked into the boarding area with a message and phone number to call Lujan back in Albuquerque.

“President Reagan is calling,” he said.  “What’s going on?”

I explained the situation.  We had briefed him on the polls the night before along with the decision to turn down a visit by the president.

“If Reagan comes, you could lose the election,” I said.  “It’s your call.”

When the connecting flight landed at Washington National Airport, another TWA rep greeted me.

“You have a message to call Congressman Lujan,” she said.  “Urgent!”

On the phone, Lujan said he had to talk Reagan out of coming to Albuquerque.  The president, he added, wasn’t happy.

“He’s going to see Skeen in Alamogordo,” he said.  “Just don’t ever put me in a situation like that with the president again.”

Atwater and I became friends during the Reagan’s re-election campaign.  I served as the principal writer for the White House’s daily “Voices for Victory,” sent out each morning to state GOP offices and other locations.

We worked together on George H.W. Bush’s campaign in 1988.  Atwater died in 1991 from an inoperable brain tumor.  He taught me a lot — good and bad — about politics.

From 1985-87, I served Lujan as his special assistant to the ranking member of the House Science & Technology Committee.  My wife joined he and Mrs. Lujan with other members of the committee on a trip to London, Israel and Rome in 1985 and I accompanied him to the Paris Air Show in another year with side trips to Germany and Sweden.

On the committee, I helped on the Congressional investigation of the shuttle disaster that brought down the Columbia and killed seven astronauts.  We also worked on transferring DARPANet from the Defense Advanced Research Agency to the National Science Foundation.  That move created the internet.

The Congressman later left Congress on his own in 1988 and became Interior Secretary for president George H.W. Bush.  He had to tell Bush “no” more than once on public land matters.  He usually won those debates.

© 2004-2022 Blue Ridge Muse

© 2021 Blue Ridge Muse