In its never-ending quest for truth and sarcasm, this column has asked officials at the White House a simple question:
How much did it cost America to send George Bush to a baseball game in Baltimore last week?
White House officials, in their finite wisdom and straight-forwardness, had a very simple answer:
"What do you mean?" asked Michael Busch, in the White House press office, as though the thought had never before occurred to anyone there. He said it in the same mock-shocked tone of voice, actually, as Vice President Dan Quayle last week, asking, "You mean it was wrong to fly U.S. military planes to golf dates?"
"The cost," we explained to Busch. "You know, the helicopters, the Secret Service agents, the motorcade, the advance men who came to Baltimore to check out the place, and all the president's guests. How many guests were there?"
"Ooooh," said Busch, "I don't know. I know members of his family went, and some friends from Texas," plus political and personal friends of the president's.
We both understand the significance of the question. Times are tough. Americans are angry about frivolous government spending. The president himself has taken great public pleasure in pointing out the cavalier spending habits of Congress while presenting himself and his vice president as penny-pinching role models for us all.
Is it not fair to ask how much it cost for the president, in an election year, to visit Baltimore for a good-natured but not exactly national security-inspired appearance before 44,000 potential voters?
"The Pentagon," says Michael Busch, at the White House, taking a vague shot at who might supply a few cost figures. "Try them."
But the Pentagon doesn't seem to know. Three different offices there come up dry, and the query is referred back to where it started: the White House press office.
"I don't want you to think we're giving you the runaround," says a Pentagon spokesman named Sam Grizzle, "but the White House erred in sending you to us. Talk to them."
Good luck. Two days of calls to the White House produce promises that someone will call back when they have the chance. Apparently, they have not had a chance.
Either that, or they're reflecting a general reluctance by the White House to discuss presidential trips.
Example: Six weeks ago, reporters grilled a White House staffer named Gary Foster about the annual cost of presidential trips aboard Air Force One. A White House transcript reads, in part:
Foster: "We don't have a figure. . . . As far as a single line item, how much it costs, it doesn't exist. No, it doesn't."
Reporter: "It can't be added up?"
Second reporter: "Is it impossible to get?"
Third reporter: "You mean you just cannot -- simply, you're saying it cannot be added up?"
Foster: "Well, it would take thousands of man hours."
This is followed by the sound of laughter, and a reporter declaring, ". . .an adding machine, and. . . ."
So let us make do the best we can -- taking coincidental note of stories last week revealing Dan Quayle's various trips to golf courses aboard military planes, and a General Accounting Office report that other top Bush administration officials took dozens of personal or political trips aboard military aircraft that cost taxpayers about $750,000, while repaying only $61,585.
How much did the president's helicopter flight to Baltimore cost taxpayers?
Well, since no one at the White House or the Pentagon seems able to furnish a figure, we called Omniflight Helicopter Executive Charter Transport, at Martin State Airport. They rent helicopters.
Naturally, their helicopters aren't outfitted like the president's helicopter, either for comfort or security. So the cost would be far lower. But, to rent the Augusta 109 model favored by various chief executives of business, the cost is $1,175 an hour.
The president and his party used four helicopters, and kept them out about four hours. (Two of the copters, it should be pointed out, were used to transport reporters. As a rule, the White House foots the bill, since it loves having reporters along on jaunts such as the happy Opening Day ritual.)
Four helicopters, four hours, extremely conservative estimate: $18,800.
The copters landed at Carroll Park and the party motorcaded to the stadium. Michael Busch said he thinks there were only two limousines in the motorcade.
We called Maryland Limousine Service.
For $47.25 an hour -- minimum of three hours -- you can rent a spiffy limo. Naturally, it doesn't have the security precautions built into the presidential limos, which were driven in from Washington before the president's helicopter ride here.
Since the president stayed about four hours, and the drive from D.C. is roughly an hour, figure the cost for two limousines, minimum: $547.
Now we get to protection. Neither the White House nor the Secret Service will say how many agents were assigned to the president's Baltimore trip, but other sources have indicated there were about 100.
Looking for a dollar estimate, we called a well known security agency here, Wells Fargo, which charges $15 to $20 an hour "just to guard a building."
We'll figure the whole $20 to guard the president of the United States. Multiply by 100 guards: $2,000. Now multiply by four hours: $8,000.
Naturally, we're being comically conservative here. Secret Service agents are paid far more than security guards. Presidential limousines and helicopters are far more expensive than commercial vehicles.
And we haven't even touched on the cost of presidential advance people, or guard dogs and their handlers, or the scores of Baltimore City police assigned to stadium duty only because the president was there.
Our estimate -- about $27,000 -- is a small percentage of the actual cost to taxpayers of moving the president of the United States from Washington to Baltimore for a baseball game.
And that doesn't even include the cost of a presidential hot dog.