Space is tight on Air Force One flight for Madiba’s memorial

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Washington - For US politicians, civil rights leaders, celebrities and business leaders with a connection to Nelson Mandela, there’s no more prestigious way to pay their respects at his memorial than to arrive in South Africa on Air Force One with US President Barack Obama.

It’s an exclusive invitation, and for all but a few who have been at the pinnacle of power an impossible one.

“There are tons of people that want to go,” said Dan Rosenthal, who served as former US president Bill Clinton’s director of advance from 1997 to 2000 and deputy director in 1995 when Clinton travelled to the funeral of slain Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“Everyone, given their druthers, would prefer to fly with the president of the United States.”

The White House frequently assembles delegations for overseas events, including memorial services, inaugurations and other official functions. The goal is a mix of politicians, relevant members of civil society and public luminaries.

This time, the White House was limiting the size of the delegation by request of the South African government, which must handle a worldwide influx of dignitaries who want to be at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg for today’s memorial service, said a White House official who asked for anonymity to discuss the deliberations.

That means corporate chief executives with ties to South Africa or Mandela will not be travelling today on Air Force One. Nor will celebrities with civil rights ties, such as Oprah Winfrey or actor Morgan Freeman, who has portrayed Mandela in film. Some public figures may travel later to attend the burial service on Sunday in Mandela’s home town of Qunu.

Only former US presidents, their spouses and some current and former Obama administration officials and aides had been invited to travel with the president as of the eve of his departure, the official said. US legislators are travelling to South Africa on a separate congressional delegation rather than with Obama.

The official did not provide a total size for the delegations.

Former president George W Bush and his wife, Laura, and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, will join Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on Air Force One, while former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea Clinton, will travel separately to the event.

Two dozen legislators were set to depart for South Africa before sunrise yesterday aboard a government jet from Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, returning in time for votes on Thursday, so that the House of Representatives can begin its holiday break on Friday as planned.

As Obama last week joined millions in celebrating the legacy of Mandela, who died last Thursday at his home in Johannesburg at age 95, White House logistics and protocol teams and top presidential advisers, including deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco were co-ordinating details from Washington and on the ground in South Africa.

“It’s going to be a big deal because the whole world is focused on it,” said Selwa Roosevelt, the chief of protocol for president Ronald Reagan from 1982 to 1989.

“A lot of the spots on Air Force One are non-discretionary,” including the Secret Service contingent and medical staff, Rosenthal said. “There aren’t all that many to play with.” The president’s plane is a modified Boeing 747-200B airliner.

Some of the dignitaries have their own reasons for travelling separately.

Carter would go with a delegation of The Elders, a group of former national leaders founded by Mandela in 2007 with backing from Virgin Group founder and chairman Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel, said Lesley-Anne Knight, the chief executive of The Elders.

Elders in the delegation “dropped everything they’re doing” and flew to London from Geneva, Paris, Helsinki, Ireland and Atlanta to meet up to take a Virgin Atlantic flight to Johannesburg along with Branson and Gabriel.

Staff joining Obama on Air Force One will include national security adviser Susan Rice, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff Tina Tchen, press secretary Jay Carney, and Mastromonaco.

For the Rabin funeral, Rosenthal recalled how the Clinton team assembled a delegation of more than 100 people spread over Air Force One and two additional aircraft. Space was so tight people were told they could not bring their spouses, he said.

Rabin’s death occurred at “a pretty sensitive point in the peace negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinians so “we wanted to be sure everyone in the US delegations was saying the right things in terms of supporting the peace negotiations”.

It also occurred at a time of tension between Clinton and Republican legislators, including Newt Gingrich, over the US annual budget, which led to the 1995/96 government shutdowns weeks later.

“So there were various levels of issues going on.” At the Rabin event, Rosenthal recalled: “I hadn’t slept in like 36 hours. You turn around and bump into, like, Prince Charles. It was a surreal scene. You have dozens of heads of state and monarchs and former heads of states. It’s rare to see that sort of a group come together and have protocol be a secondary concern. They’re there to pay their respects.”

While he will be surrounded with other world leaders, Obama does not plan any formal meetings before he flies back on the same day.

Obama says his first political speech as a college student in 1981 was inspired by Mandela. – Bloomberg

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