George Voinovich likes to be seen as a man of reason. But in the governor's escalating fight with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), he's apparently lost it.
At first, when it became known he ignored FAA rules and flew in the face of President Clinton's visit to Columbus, it was just a goofy political story in a boring election year.
Now, taking his case to court could saddle taxpayers with a $20,000 legal bill. At these rates, the governor's actions deserve a serious second look.
Gov. Short Fuse blew on Oct. 20 when federal rules delayed his plane's takeoff as the president arrived in Columbus.
As it often does when the president flies, the FAA issued a Temporary Flight Restriction, commonly referred to as a no-fly order.
When this order is in effect, no planes other than essential aircraft are cleared for takeoff. That reduces the chances of a terrorist staging a kamikaze attack on Air Force One.
The order kept the governor and his plane on the ground. And he was honked.
Gov. Voinovich called it "bull"-something and ordered his pilot to break the rules and take off. He even dared the control tower to "shoot us down." That, too, would have cost. One hour of flying time for an F-15 Eagle fighter jet runs $3,399 to $4,037.
The pilot followed orders and took off. The FAA responded by slapping the governor with a standard $1,500 fine.
The governor's fighting that fine, and tax dollars are footing the bill. He has hired a Columbus law firm to fight for his right to fly the friendly skies of Ohio. We're paying his lawyers' $95-an-hour fee. Their bill could top out at $20,000.
The governor says he's entitled to the money because he was on official business. Too bad he wasn't thinking as a respected public official would, much less an adult.
"What Voinovich did was stupid. He should have his head chopped off and handed to him on a platter," says Bill Wamsley, veteran radio DJ and multilicensed pilot with 34 years' flying experience.
"When the president is in the air, the FAA sets up flight procedures that everyone must observe. Even the governor."
No-fly rules are not issued on a whim, especially in an administration that has seen both rifle shots and an airplane crash into the White House.
"We go to the FAA to make this request to cover a particular area," says Secret Service special agent Arnett Heintz. "We do this for specific security issues relating to the protection of the president."
This keeps sightseeing and mischief-making planes away from Air Force One and its No. 1 passenger. It also puts everyone on alert for potential attacks on the president.
"The Secret Service takes a dim view of anyone flying too close to the president," notes David MacDonald, president of Flamingo Air, a local charter service.
To illustrate his point, Mr. MacDonald told me a story about the recent presidential visit to Cincinnati. When Mr. Clinton came to town in March to speak at Xavier University, flights out of Lunken Airport were not restricted. As the president's motorcade drove into town, a sightseeing flight just happened to be following the same route.
As soon as the plane was spotted, "the control tower told the pilot to peel off," Mr. MacDonald recalls. "The tower also told him, 'As you do, take note of the Blackhawk helicopters at 12, 1 and 6 o'clock.' He was practically surrounded by copters loaded with heavily armed Secret Service agents who could ruin your day in a heartbeat."
Rules are rules. Law-and-order Republicans should know that.
So what gives with Gov. Voinovich?
Maybe politics have addled his ethics. These days, he's busy jockeying for a shot at the vice presidential spot on his party's ticket. Perhaps taking orders from a Democrat set him off.
Still, we in Ohio are left with the spectacle of our governor challenging the feds to shoot him down, and then defending that idiocy with $20,000 of our money.
Instead of spending another public penny, Gov. Voinovich should shut up and pay the fine. Just chalk it up to the high price of being reasonable.
Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.