In a February 9 article, The New York Times reported on the uproar over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) access to a military aircraft to fly nonstop between Washington, D.C., and her home district in California, noting the Republican effort to portray Pelosi "as a luxury-loving San Franciscan." The Times asserted that "the dispute illustrates that politicians are acutely aware that a jet-setting image can be dangerous," adding that "President Bill Clinton spent a long time living down the tale of his haircut on Air Force One as flights were delayed at Los Angeles International Airport, even though there is dispute over whether other planes were affected." In fact, there exists no "dispute over whether other planes were affected" -- the claim that Clinton's haircut delayed air traffic at LAX or elsewhere is flatly disproved by Federal Aviation Administration records, as reported more than 13* years ago.
As Media Matters for America has noted, the media have uncritically repeated baseless and disputed allegations from congressional Republicans regarding Pelosi and her access to military aircraft and have ignored their own role in perpetuating the GOP-fueled "controversy."
According to the February 9 Times article by congressional reporter Carl Hulse:
The attention to the dispute illustrates that politicians are acutely aware that a jet-setting image can be dangerous, particularly given the travails of modern travel for average Americans.
President Bill Clinton spent a long time living down the tale of his haircut on Air Force One as flights were delayed at Los Angeles International Airport, even though there is dispute over whether other planes were affected.
This claim, however, is completely false. According to a June 30, 1993, Newsday article headlined, "Bill's Coif: The Myth; Runway trim delayed no one":
The story was that planes were kept circling as President Bill Clinton had his hair clipped on Air Force One at Los Angeles airport last month.
The runway haircut by Beverly Hills stylist Cristophe became such a metaphor for perceived White House arrogance that the president himself felt compelled to apologize for the reported flight delays.
But the reports were wrong.
According to Federal Aviation Administration records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the May 18 haircut caused no significant delays of regularly scheduled passenger flights - no circling planes, no traffic jams on the runways.
Commuter airlines that fly routes reportedly affected by the president's haircut confirmed they have no record of delays that day.
The FAA records, generated by the regional Air Route Traffic Control Center, show that an unscheduled air taxi flight had the only delay attributed to the closure of two runways for an hour in anticipation of Air Force One's departure. The air taxi took off 17 minutes after leaving the gate -- two minutes late, by FAA accounting.
"If you understand the air traffic system, you'd find that statement [that planes were circling] ludicrous," said Fred O'Donnell, an FAA spokesman at the agency's Western-Pacific regional office, which responded to New York Newsday's May 21 request under the freedom of information law.
O'Donnell said that although two runways were closed, traffic was light that afternoon and arriving flights were simply diverted to the two other runways. "It did not cause any problems," he said.
However, an air-traffic controller union official said the runway closings did increase the workload in the control centers. "If you close two runways, you take away 50 percent of the capacity and increase the complexity by 100 percent," said Karl Grundmann, regional vice president for the union.
O'Donnell said the FAA records an arrival delay if controllers take any action to slow traffic approaching the airport, such as having the pilot circle the airport. A departure delay is recorded whenever it takes an aircraft more than 15 minutes to take off after having pushed off from the gate.
During the uproar over the haircut, an unidentified FAA spokesperson was quoted in wire service reports as saying that a flight from Yuma, Ariz., to Los Angeles was delayed 25 minutes, a flight arriving from Palmdale, Calif., was delayed 17 minutes and several other flights were delayed about 10 minutes. No airlines were identified, but these details were widely repeated by news media, including New York Newsday.
In fact, even Republican attacks on Pelosi as reported by the media -- the Times wrote that Republicans accused her "of putting on royal airs" -- echo Republican attacks on Clinton in 1993. In a May 21, 1993, article on the haircut, the Boston Globe reported that Republicans accused Clinton of having an "apparent regal attitude."
From the February 9 Times story:
Republicans, accusing Ms. Pelosi of putting on royal airs, on Thursday stepped up their campaign to portray her as a luxury-loving San Franciscan because her cross-country travel could require a larger military jet than the one used since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to ferry Speaker J. Dennis Hastert home to Illinois.
"I hardly think these amenities help with security, and I personally would describe them as inappropriate and unnecessary extravagances," said Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, chief deputy Republican whip.
From the May 21, 1993, Globe story, headlined, "Presidential style; Air traffic waits for Beverly hills haircut":
But Republican critics seized the moment, blasting the populist president's apparent regal attitude.
"He ought to be more concerned about trimming the deficit than trimming his hair," scolded Rep. Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, in remarks on the House floor yesterday.
And Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP strategist, called it "the ultimate arrogance."
Correction: The original item said "more than 15 years ago." We regret the error.