Our meter is deranged

June 14, 1994|By Russell Baker

NOW that all humanity has voiced its outrage about the White House people who took a military helicopter to the golf course, let's get serious: Why did this trip cost $13,129.66?

That's how much the golfers are said to have been charged for the outing. Golfers who regularly take helicopters when they head for the course say the White House players were wildly overcharged.

Around New York, for instance, you can helicopter from the Wall Street pad out to any of the good courses in North Jersey's stockbroker belt for about $650.

Throw in another $150 for, say, three hours of waiting time at $50 per hour and maybe $100 for landing fees, and the cost comes to about $900.

We are talking about travel with private companies in business to make a profit. Since the helicopter used by the White House golfers was owned by the government, a nonprofit institution, you'd think the cost might be, oh, 20 percent lower, which would bring it down to $720.

So why were the White House golfers charged some $12,409.66 more than the private sector would have billed them for their now-famous trip to Frederick, a journey comparable to the trip from Wall Street to Englewood, N.J.?

Did the government take advantage of the cries of public outrage to gouge its own people for something like $12,000?

Efforts to persuade the White House to cough up an itemized bill have so far been futile, probably because the White House bureaucracy is just as baffled as I am about how prices for personalized Pentagon services are computed.

Since the Pentagon is the computer, one is tempted to play the wise guy and say that it charged $720 for the service and $12,409.66 for the cost overrun.

More likely, though, the huge difference between the private sector's $900 charge and the military's $13,129.66 reflects a huge difference in the quality of helicopter travel being provided.

I'm guessing a bit here, but I'll bet the helicopter served up when the White House phones is just about the most marvelous helicopter unlimited amounts of money can buy. As if that weren't enough, for the golf run a second helicopter -- sort of a buddy copter to the passenger vehicle -- was sent along. The non-government traveler by contrast gets only one helicopter and that one, you can be sure, looks like the Toonerville Trolley compared with the one taking presidential men aloft.

I suppose we are to assume that this breathtaking golfer's transport charge reflects the average afternoon's cost of using all machines of this breed and vintage in all their various jobs. How else compute the cost to the golfers?

If so, this is one mighty expensive piece of machinery, but of course we all expect incredible expense when talking about the grandeur of our astonishing war machinery. Price is no issue with this stuff.

The cost of operating all these machines in a typical afternoon for the length of time the golfers used the pricey helicopter must stagger even secretaries of defense if they ever think of it, which they probably struggle mightily not to. Yet one assumes, without thinking of it, that thousands of the best machines money can buy are in constant operation around the world.

Thinking of their cost is even more alarming than watching the taxi meter while trying to go crosstown in New York's rush-hour traffic. In this enormous routine daily spending orgy the cost of carrying a few golfers to Frederick is laughably trivial, except to the golfer confronted with the bill.

It is the great attention paid last week to D-Day that has me dwelling on these immensely costly mechanical marvels. Watching black-and-white film showing what Americans were like 50 years ago reminded me not only of how poor we were, how unchic our wardrobes were and how ill decorated our houses, but also of how inexpensive, unfancy and not very special our machines were.

German machines were superior in almost every category, yet not good enough against a people so at home with the Toonerville Trolley that they could quickly convert hundreds of thousands of them into weapons which, as the song goes, made tyranny tremble.

Those old-timers were on to something important, and we don't even know anymore what it was. We have machines that cost $13,000 per afternoon.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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