(NPR's Larry Abramson is among the correspondents traveling with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Asia this week. Monday, he told us about a poignant exchange of artifacts. Today, he gives us a glimpse of what it's like to be in the secretary's motorcade.)
Traveling with Panetta places reporters in an elite sphere, unlike any they are likely to encounter in their normal lives. There's no waiting to board a commercial plane — we come and go on a dedicated Air Force jumbo jet that leaves whenever Panetta is ready.
But weirdest of all are the motorcades that take us to and from airports.
In my brief stint on the defense beat, we have seen European efficiency — the Belgians simply stop freeway traffic for the SECDEF — and the military no-nonsense approach — the Army escort from the Kabul airport drove at breakneck speed, and all passengers wore body armor and helmets. But the Vietnamese police escort from the Hanoi air field set a new standard for ruthlessness.
As the press van careened between the city's many motor scooters, a police car drove along side shouting "Get out of the way!" over a loudspeaker. To make sure local drivers got the message, the officer riding shotgun waved a baton out the window. Anyone too slow to move out of the way (some may not have heard the warning because Hanoi scooterists like to text and talk while driving) got a whack on the back. Wham!
It was a surefire way to get traffic moving, but it also made many of us uneasy. We know they do this to protect a senior U.S. official, but some of us felt personally responsible for the bruises these citizens would carry home with them. Would they blame the van labeled "Press" for their corporal punishment?