White House golf tale bounces all over course

June 01, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

It was kind of fun watching the White House groping to explain why three aides used a presidential helicopter to fly to a country club to play a round of golf.

The question was first raised by a congressman who said using a helicopter seemed extravagant, since the golfers could have driven to the course in less than an hour.

In contrast, it costs thousands every time a Marine helicopter takes off.

So we called the White House and asked why a helicopter was used to fly three guys for a day of goofing off.

After being switched about a dozen times, we ended up talking to Lisa Mortman of the White House media affairs office.

Sounding surprised, Ms. Mortman said: "I can't see this happening at all. So you're saying someone took Marine One to play golf?"

So we are told.

"No, this is not something White House aides would do. If you really think about it, that's just not a possibility. It's not one of our perks. It's so out of the realm of possibility. There's just no possible way that could have happened."

So we called the Holly Hills Country Club in Maryland, where the White House helicopter was said to have been spotted last Tuesday, and talked to the head professional.

Pro Mike McGinnis said: "Uh, I have been informed by the White House to tell you that this was just a travel mission to find out how long it took to get from Camp David to Holly Hills, and how long it takes to play.

"See, I played golf with President Bush here lots of times. And President Clinton is looking to maybe play here and this is what they do. They have to come and see it. This was an advance group to find out how long it took to get here, how long it took to play."

So how did this advance scouting group play?

"One guy was pretty good. Shot a 78. The rest were OK. One was the commander of Camp David. He shot a 90. And the other one, he was kind of a rookie."

By the time we finished chatting with the pro, Ms. Mortman called back, sounding a bit subdued. Apparently she had discovered that it was not impossible for aides to zoom off in a helicopter. And she suggested we call some other media specialist.

And before long, we received a fax offering a new explanation for the golf junket.

Now the story was that it was all part of Marine Corps training.

"The use of the helicopter," the fax said, "is in keeping with standard procedures employed for advance trips of this type and was necessary in order to familiarize the air crew with all aspects of flight time and landing zone particulars.

"The senior helicopter pilot who flew the mission is one of the few remaining pilots within the HMX squadron that is familiar with the landing zone at Holly Hills, having last flown to the site two years ago.

"This was a training mission to familiarize the HMX crew with the golf course layout and to verify that safe helicopter operations could be conducted at the Holly Hills Country Club landing zone.

"The actual flight time and associate pilot training is in keeping with standard operating procedures required by the squadron in order to maintain the highest level of pilot and crew proficiency."

How reassuring to know that in these times of military cutbacks, the training goes on.

From the Halls of Montezuma

To the shores of Tripoli,

And to the Holly Hills Country Club.

But as the day went on, the White House apparently decided that we might be dumb, but not dumb enough to believe the "training mission" yarn. They need Marines and a helicopter to find lost balls?

So Clinton's press secretary said that, no, there were no plans for Clinton to play at that golf course.

The next announcement was that the White House chief of staff TC would look into the matter to see if any travel rules had been violated.

So in only a few hours we had (1) a White House press aide saying it was ridiculous to suggest that officials would ride a chopper to a golf course.

And (2) a golf pro saying, sure, they were here and played the course.

Then (3) a fax saying, yes, they went, but it was part of a Marine training trip and a recon mission for a presidential golf outing.

And (4) the press secretary saying, uh-uh, the prez isn't going to play there.

Finally (5), it is being investigated.

Before the sun went down, the silly double-talk had ended.

It turns out that the golf jaunt had been led by David Watkins, director of the White House office of administration.

He's an old Arkansas chum of Bill and Hillary, and one of the president's golfing buddies.

Apparently Clinton or someone said: "Boy, how stupid can you get," or words to that effect.

And Mr. Watkins turned in his resignation.

Now he will be playing golf back in Arkansas. And there will be no Marine to salute him when he gets out of his pickup truck.

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