How I met POTUS – and his 600-man road show

The Cold War may be over, as George W Bush has been telling all and sundry since he arrived in Europe last week, but the imperial presidency lives on.
According to some accounts, 600 people travelled with the United States leader to Warsaw last week. About 150 of them, I am reliably informed, are security men. These are not only the President’s bodyguards, but the Secretary of State’s bodyguards, the National Security Adviser’s bodyguards, the First Lady’s bodyguards – not to mention the rooftop snipers who could be seen glancing through the skylight during Mr Bush’s speech at Warsaw University on Friday.
What the other 450 could possibly be doing seemed an unanswerable question – how many advisers/speechwriters/food-tasters does the President need? – until I happened to be in the same room as him. Not only does the President bring his advisers and security, he also travels, at all times, with his own sound technicians and camera crew – even when speaking briefly and informally (as I saw him do) to a small group – to record his off-the-cuff jokes for posterity.
He also brings his own limousine drivers, and he brings not only a pilot for Air Force One, but an entire ground crew. Add to that the White House press corps, the technicians who support the White House press corps, the typists, the secretaries and the myriad people needed to perform security checks on everyone entering a room where the President is going to be standing for 10 minutes, and you eventually reach 600.
One shudders to think what it costs the American taxpayer to send Mr Bush to Europe: after all, the President’s entourage took over almost all of one multi-storey international hotel in the centre of Warsaw, and occupied large chunks of at least three others. Perhaps this sudden, massive presence of alien Americans also helps explain why it is that the mere presence of the President of the United States – or POTUS, as his 600-strong entourage usually refer to him – seems to induce, wherever he goes, something akin to mass hysteria.
No one wants to miss out. When Mr Bush made his speech at the university, not only was most of the Polish government present, but so were at least three ex-prime ministers, a gaggle of ex-defence and foreign ministers, much of the diplomatic corps, a cardinal and a fully kitted-out member of the Orthodox hierarchy.
The newspapers were full of nothing else, while their online equivalents published live reports on the President’s every move throughout his stay here, not forgetting to mention what he ate for lunch (venison pate, Mazurian crabs, goat cheese mousse). There is something more to it than just the entourage, of course. It is really only when you see the US President doing his thing in a relatively provincial city that you truly understand how powerful the United States has become.
For power is partly about perceptions of power: you are as important as other people think you are, and people think the American leader is very important indeed. As you might expect, ordinary people who meet him are often struck dumb. But even senior officials, adult members of legitimate governments, become uncomfortable in his presence, shifting from foot to foot, while the undertone in the voices of some of the local embassy staff, upon whom has fallen the burden of organising the visit of their 600 compatriots, can only be described as panicked.
No one is wholly exempt. Along with about 100 other people, I, too, agreed to arrive at 7am, as instructed, for an 8.45 meeting with the President, endured the layers of security, listened to the aforementioned embassy staff make more security announcements: no one allowed to enter or leave the room, even to use the loo, in the 20 minutes before the President’s arrival; no one allowed to go out of the building until the President has left it . . .
Then, finally, we were all allowed to shake hands with a perfectly normal, apparently relaxed, rather short and surprisingly well-spoken Texan, together with his modestly attired wife – and everyone thought it was worth the wait. Perhaps the American taxpayers are getting something for their money after all.