Today was a traveling nightmare. It began with a trip to Middletown to buy peanuts. Peanuts have become a food source that I seem not to be able to go without, even for one day. Anyway, my trip was successful until I went west instead of east on route 17. When I passed the fly fishing museum it was clear I was headed in the wrong direction. Did my GPS lead me home. Not a chance. After hours and hours of driving in a continuos torrential downpour, I saw a sign that said 17 east. This road took me back to exactly where I made the initial mistake. It was still raining. All of this to say that I reflected about another memorable trip. Although it is over thirty years old, here’s a memo I wrote about that trip. It was addressed to my “White House Advance Team” (WHAT) hero, Harvey Buffalo.
To: Harvey Buffalo
From: White House Advance Team
Re: Changes required to make First Lady trip more appealing.
the Abbey at Melk
As you know the White House Advance Team (WHAT?) has been searching for event opportunities in and around Vienna for the last six days. We have only four days left before the President arrives and not all the decisions have been made. Here are several things which I think show potential in terms of their visual and political appeal — but are not without problems. As always I need your help to resolve those problems. I am confident that you, as my mother would say, can make it, “all better.”
1. The arrival site is a touch boring. Just a plain old airfield/tarmac without any character. I thought some decorations would be nice. But please, nothing standard. People get so tired of the same old arrival. You know — black landing field, chain link fence, airplane as backdrop, flags, and lines of soldiers for color. Uniforms, and soldiers with weapons are alright but it’s always the same, same, same, same, same, everywhere we go. My imagination appears to be on hold, my brain is temporarily empty, and my sense of drama has been drained and beaten into submission by the bureaucrats. Please please please please please, (if I appear to be whining your perception is correct and it’s always worked in the past so don’t make me search for another approach,) see what you can come up with.
2. The street in front of the Ambassador’s residence is very narrow. As you know, everyone who has ever met the President in their whole life — even casually, will be staying with him in that residence. At one point there will be five motorcades arriving and departing. Unfortunately, the motorcades include buses. It is going to be very difficult to manipulate those hundreds of cars and buses. Since we know absolutely no one will be willing to forgo a vehicle , there’s bound to be some dreadful accident unless the street is wider. Please see what you can do.
3. There is a little church in a little village about twenty five kilometers north of Vienna. I think it’s north, it may be south, (I’ll check before you make the trip.) North or south it is incredibly picturesque. I believe it’s known as the Abbey in Melk. It seems a perfect place to spend a few hours — local color, villagers in costumes, children presenting the Mrs. with flowers — and this wonderful meaningful church with ions of historic value. Here’s the problem . There are several bodies, they call them Relics, decomposing in the church. At first I didn’t know what Relics were. The only Relics Jewish people have are antique cars and their parents. The guide was, however, kind enough to explain that these Relics were decomposed and preserved old bodies. To be honest it was incredibly gross. There are alot of these moldy old bodies incased in glass and on display. We of the Jewish persuasion bury our dead. We do it in the ground where they can rest in peace and so no one can bother them. I feel sure no one wants to see even a tastefully decomposed Jewish person and I would venture to guess that no one wants to see a decomposed Christian person either. No matter how important they used to be.
I think it is safe to say that Mrs. President is among those no ones. It seems unnecessary for the Austrians to have left these decayed and rather unattractive bodies laying around a perfectly lovely church spoiling the view for all the tourists. Anyway, I’m not sure how to explain a 55 minute drive to see “person dust”. Furthermore, if she is asked what she thinks about them what does she respond. “Oh I just love to look at dead people. I can remember once Jimmy took me to a wake for our anniversary. It was just as wonderful as it could be. Of course that body was newly dead. I have always prefered to see bodies which were decomposing for hundreds of years.”
Could you find a way to cover or rearrange them without causing an international incident?
4. New problem, same church. Needs to be lit for cameras and photo ops. The people who are in charge of the church seem a little reluctant to disturb anything, to make any changes. Even when I explained that the lights were critical to the success of the picture, the trip, the Presidency, they were not particularly interested — they muttered something about Philistine — but I know you can make them understand.
5. We will need to pave the vineyards outside of Durnstein. Ordinarily they would provide us with good color and a good visual we find in this instance it is best to use the space they occupy for press platforms.
6. You will need to install 400 or 500 yards of escalator in order for the First Lady to have the best possible view of the countryside.
7. Along the Danube there are many beautiful sights. There is, however, a bridge which is a terrible eyesore. We need it removed. We might consider using it in lieu of the escalator if we turn it on its side and put it up against the mountain. We do not wish to appear wasteful. If constructed correctly it could also alleviate the problem of the nude bathers. Then we wouldn’t have to move her from one side to the other side of the boat during the trip.
8. The sun will need to be moved so as not to interfere with the perfect picture in the courtyard at Durnstein. It need not be an enormous move — just enough to have the sun at the rear of the press platforms which have been provided.
The first time I met Harvey I knew I was in the presence of Advanceman greatness. I was working in Paris on a Presidential Advance. Harvey was sitting in the corner surrounded by paper. He was the control officer and had all paper, all the numbers, and all the answers. None of the White House Advance Team were paying any attention to him because he was the dreaded Foreign Service Officer (FSO). FSO’s are usually not popular with political appointments and visa-versa. (It’s the same attitude National political people have about local political people). While it is true that FSO’s don’t know everything it is also true that they some information about the culture in which they have been submerged for years — foreign or domestic. The fact that Harvey had all the paper and all the information and all the cars, cables, keys and money, should have sent a signal to all the very important representatives of the President of the United States, that Harvey was the key to the trip. It did not. But he immediately became my best friend. He knew how to get things done. There was no request too large or too stupid — on these trips there is always an abundance of stupid. Anyone who was aspiring to do great Advance would have recognized Harvey’s greatness immediately. As I said, there was some flood of stupid — but certainly a drought of great Advance.
There are a number of qualities necessary to make a great Advance person. The most important of which is achieving the impossible. In my mind there have been only two extraordinary advancepeople. Count Potempkin and Harvey Buffalo. There have, of course, been better than good Advance people, exciting Advance people, and imaginative Advancepeople, but Harvey and the Count were in a class all by themselves.
Just for a few fleeting moments let’s pretend it is Russia in the late 1700’s. The reign of Catherine the Great will provide us with a backdrop for the incredible talents of Count Potemkin. Advance, was not really a career in the 1700’s. One had a career as a military person, as a diplomat court jestor, or perhaps royalty. One did what the Empress wanted them to do. Potemkin, however, was also able to get her to do what he wanted her to do.
He was not born royalty. His meteoric rise to Countdom was preceeded by some mundane positions — chief Procurator of the Holy Synod, (the supreme body for dealing with church matters), military paymaster, and an officer in charge of two detachments of Horse Guards. Let’s cut to the quick, By 1770 he was in St. Petersburg having an affair with her highness. Even in those days when one has an affair with one who happens to be the Empress, it did give one certain priviledges not extended to the average employee.
A personality sketch of the Count, while not complete is interesting. For example, we know he was not an “early to rise” kind of guy. But we also know that once up his energy was endless. He resettled the Cossacks in areas where he could watch them; moved peasants, prisoners, army deserters and serfs to areas which needed to be populated and developed; banded together new armies; and orchestrated the trip for which he became famous — Catherine’s journey accross Russia to visit what we now know were “Potemkin’s villages”.
Let’s pretend, for a brief time, it’s 1790 and Larry King has decided to interview the Count.
Larry: So Count, you and Cate had a pretty long journey. That was quite an accomplishment for you wasn’t it ? Can you give us some highlights while its still fresh your mind.
Count: Well, yes it was Larry. You know Catherine and it took a long time to convince her that it was a good idea. She didn’t understand why she needed to see so much of Russia. She did, after all, have people she paid to see it for her. Empresses are not good at understanding why they should be the slightest bit inconvenienced.
Larry: But you did convince her, how?
Count: I never really convinced her that she should see the country. I did convince her that it would be good press. You know Larry, we weren’t having an easy time of it. I don’t need to go into detail but the news of Russia’s glory was getting the short shrift. So that’s what we set out to change. You know how we did it? A “DipDel,” we took a delegation of the international diplomatic corp with us and, of course, some writers. But the Dips did most of the reporting back to Europe. Anyway, selling her on the idea of good press was a lot easier than selling her on the idea of visiting peasants. She’s never had any real interest in serfs you know. She thinks you’ve seen one serf, you’ve seen them all. She’s probably right — they do hardly differ in size, shape or the way they dress.
Larry: Journalists are a tough lot. Do you feel you had some success with them.
Count: Yes Larry, I do! And Catherine deserves the credit for that success. She is her own best press chief. She spent a lot of time with the diplomats and writers. She made sure that before they reached a region they were properly briefed. They always got all the necessary information about the people and the culture the were about to encounter. She really watched what they wrote home so she could correct any mistakes they made. Of course there were no mistakes but she still felt it was necessary to oversee the information that went out. She was very busy. The trip cost us about 10 million rubles — but worth every penny.
Larry: Can you give me an idea about what the daily schedule was like for the Empress?
Count: Wake-up 6:00am. 6-7 she took care of all her correspondence. 7:00 was breakfast. From 8:00-9:00 she had meetings with diplomats and couriers. And then at 9:00 the travelling party departed on sledges for the next village or Russian highlight. At 2:00 they stopped for lunch and then back on the sledges. At 7:00 they were RON. (Rest Over Night).
Larry: Sounds mighty tiring. What were you doing while the journey was in progress.
Count: Just making sure everything was on track. Checking the sledges, lighting places of glory, delivering food to lunch and dinner stops and of course making sure that there was the building material at each designated RON so the villages could be completed.
Larry: When did you actually start planning for this journey?
Count: I guess it was about 1780. It started during some visits I made to the south. I wanted Catherine to travel to the Port of Kherson to see a village I had built. We had done some incredible things down there. The south was inhabited by pirates and bandits. Generally speaking I have nothing against pirates and bandits but I didn’t want them in Russia. So I got rid of them. In all fairness I gave them a choice. I told them, “Remain here as pirates and bandits and die or help settle the country and live prosperously.” Anyway, most stayed and it permitted Catherine to annex the Crimea.
I thought she should see what we annexed so while I was there I met with local authorities. It’s always tactically important to meet with the local folks. I looked at sites, checked out places for festivities, determined where we would do horse changes, and decided what palaces should be built for the people traveling with us who needed them.
Larry: How did you keep track of all that information?
Count: I write things down. By about 1784 I had a lot of terrific ideas. So I put all my notes in order and sent a guidebook directly to the Empress. None of this “from Potemkin, through the Duke, to the Empress, the way the other bureaucrats do it. And I gotta tell you she was impressed. I described towns and villages and districts she should visit. I included distances to be covered each day. I gave her maps and diagrams and all kinds of interesting information. Catherine loved it.
Larry: So, by 1787 you were ready to go?
Count: Yes. Fourteen great sledges were at the palace door in January. 124 smaller sledges were to follow and 40 sledges were kept in reserve in case of emergency. Each of the big sledges was drawn by 30 horses. The large sledges were the size of a house. Catherine’s sledge had a drawing room, study, library, and bedroom. It took 30 horses to pull it. I had to be prepared to keep changing horses. I guess I left about 560 horses at each station stop — as well as the blacksmiths, stable boys, and carpenters to service them.
Larry: Sounds like lots of work. What were the biggest problems you encountered?
Count: There were no biggest problems — all the problems were of equal size. You know the weather in Russia is a bitch. In fact, before we boarded the galleys in Kiev we were held up for weeks in a storm. I’ll tell you about the galleys in a minute. The people were a problem. When you invite all those foreign dignitaries and writers it takes a lot more work then people from your own court. These folks had to carry on their own diplomatic duties as well as report on the progress of the trip. You know we took the Ambassadors from France, Austria, and England with us… and they are fussy! They expect to be treated like royalty. You can’t just shlep a Count or a Duke from place to place. They have to be waited on and catered to. I don’t have to tell you Larry, you know VIP’s. To be honest Lar, the biggest problem was finding good help. You just can’t find good help anymore. For example, we had to repair and recontruct towns and villages. Each one had to be different. That was part of the picture we were trying to create — a Russia with great strength and diversity. As I mentioned we had to build galleys for the sea voyage. And I mean Galley’s! Seven huge red and gold Roman galleys headed the procession. Then, just like with the sledges, they were followed by seventy three galleys in an array of sizes. It took three thousand sailors to man the ships. And I’m talking ships. They were beautiful, luxurious, enormous! Each one has it’s own orchestra. The orchestra on Catherine’s galley was conducted by the maestro Sarti. Can you imagine the maestro conducting on a boat. It was fabulous. But he’s not easy I can tell you that — without telling tales out of court. I mean we’re talking multitudes here. Just try and find a someone to repair a galley on a weekend. But it worked and as a bonus we scared the hell out of the Turks.
Larry: The trip got good press but you personally took some pretty heavy hits, Count.
Count: You mean the garbage that Saxon diplomat Helbig wrote. I read it. The part I found most entertaining was where he says everything was a sham. The people and villages were all set-ups. The concept of “Potemkins villages,” ridiculous. It was flattering but not accurate. Just read the chronicles of Comte de Segur and Prince de Ligne, people who actually travelled on the journey. They’ll tell you what really happened. Truth is I make things look too easy. It’s certainly not easy to do what I did but I do make it look easy. Helbig also accused me of taking the three million ruble advance and keeping it for myself. He clearly does not understand the cost of travel nor the importance of organization. I don’t want to waste your precious interview time discussing that envious bastard. He was angry because we didn’t invite the Prussian Ambassador to come along. I’ve heard they are more then just good friends if you know what I mean.
Larry: What would you consider the highlight of the adventure.
Count: The celebration of Catherine’s 25th year as reigning monarch. I built this fabulous house and garden on the banks of the river. We prepared a banquet with national dishes and wines I had developed – the white Sudak from the Crimea was especially good. We had a concert and entertainment and as darkness fell 120 cannons fired salvoes to begin the fireworks display. Launched thirty thousand rockets! When Catherine went to bed I told her to look out her window at the mountain. And when she did she saw her initials spelled out on the mountain side, used 55,000 candle lights for it, just incredible!
Larry: You’re pretty incredible. Any plans for the future?
Count: I’ve been on the road for a long time. Right now all I want to do is go back to the palace and rest. Then there was some talk of extending our borders, settling more territory, moving more serfs… the usual.
Larry: I know how busy you are Count and I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me today.
Count: I enjoyed it Larry . The next time we decide to go anywhere I’ll make sure you get an invitation.
There are no more counts or Harvey. Today everyone wants to be the boss. Everyone wants to be a humma humma before they learn to hum.
Just remember Phillipe de Segur’s description of the Count, and if he had known him, of Harvey. “He knows in a fantastic way how to remove every obstacle in his path and to discipline nature, shorten distances, disguise misery, dissipate boredom, and impart an air of life to the most sterile deserts….”
Oh well, as my mother says “What is — is.”