There’s nothing like a communal flight with the current president of the United States and his predecessor to make the press miss the days of a communicative commander in chief.
George W. and Laura Bush joined the Obamas on Air Force One en route to Johannesburg, South Africa, for a Nelson Mandela memorial service.
Hillary Clinton was also on board, with Bill and Chelsea coming to the service from a Clinton Global Initiative event in Rio.
The Obamas have stayed in their cabin for the flight, according to the White House pool report from the refueling stop in Senegal, while President Bush came to the press cabin twice for a total of about an hour and a half.
Once he was accompanied by Laura. Both times he was chatting off the record, saying hi to longtime reporters and greeting newer correspondents. Bush has been building cervical cancer screening clinics in Africa since his retirement from public office.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Attorney General Eric Holder and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett were also on the flight but avoided the press. The pool report noted that Holder wandered into the press cabin “before realizing the treacherous territory he’d ventured into and moving on.”
Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One that Obama would speak for about 10 to 15 minutes at the Mandela service, but stressed the South African government will “have the full run of show.”
“We’ve been in touch with the Mandela family and are seeking to see if there is time for them to meet. Unfortunately, we don’t know for certain because things are so fluid on the ground. But we would certainly like the opportunity for the President to pay his respects to Graça Machel and the broader Mandela family. Beyond that, we don’t expect any bilateral meetings of any sort. I presume that he will certainly see President Zuma, have a chance to speak to him, but not in any kind of formal way,” Rhodes said of Obama’s time in South Africa.
President Carter is also going to the memorial, but with Mandela’s NGO The Elders.
Rhodes said Obama didn’t do any preparation for a speech before Mandela’s passing. When Obama was in South Africa this year, he did not visit the gravely ill leader.
“On our last trip to South Africa, he obviously spoke frequently about Mandela over the course of that trip. He was able to go to Robben Island, which was a very powerful experience for him to stand in that cell again,” Rhodes said. “But in terms of this particular set of remarks, we waited until we had an indication from the South African government that he may speak, and then he has been working on it over the weekend. And I’m sure he’ll continue to work on it on the plane.”
A congressional delegation separately left for the memorial in the very early hours Monday.
“Mandela has been a freedom-defining fighter for me and others throughout the world,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a member of the delegation. “I could only imagine him before his release from Robben Island but met him when he became President of his country. Now it is time to share with South African’s their farewell to Madiba, father of their country and mentor to millions throughout the world.”