Featured Content, Daily Diary:
Salimah Ebrahim, June 27, 2002
Having attended international summits before, it has become difficult for me to be left truly speechless at the sight of a world leader, at the spectacle of the G8 pageant.
Tuesday changed all that.
The arrival of American President George W. Bush on Air Force One, was a moment of glamour and spectacle that few could truly distance themselves from. Standing on the tarmac of Calgary International Airport, the Presidential plane, splashed in its trademark powder blue and white, emblazoned with the official seal of the most powerful man in the world, stood dauntingly before us.
United States military helicopters encircled the aircraft both on the ground and above, with hundreds of security personnel and Secret Service lining the runway. The sheer pressure exerted from the helicopters had a fierce wind blowing in our direction, making it difficult to even stand up.
As preparations were being made for Bush's descent from the plane, I found myself truly struck by the sense of power, procedure and prestige that the ceremony demanded. American and Canadian Flags framed the scene, with the RCMP lining the red carpet on one side and the press the other. The air was very tense, as was security. As I stepped only about a foot closer to the plane, I felt two strong arms around me physically restraining me back. It was the secret service, I had stepped too far, and out of virtually nowhere they had come to make the fact known to me.
With my shoulder still feeling the pressure from the strong-arm, I understood the power of the President. His security would not be sacrificed for anyone or anything. This realization did not come without fear and uncertainty, and as I stood waiting for his arrival I understood that this would not just be a photo-op. It would forever serve as a very real and important lesson in my personal understanding of global dynamics.
Until this moment, I had not been truly concerned with seeing the President in person, but now it felt important, it took on a bigger meaning. So much has happened in our world over the last year and the presence of America and its President is symbolic of that. Through tragedy, leaders often tend to rise to hitherto unseen levels of infallibility and respect. When the President speaks, the world listens, and through difficult times the Presidential office becomes a pillar upon which the public can lean.
The challenge then lies in the difficulty of separating the man from the context of his office. He himself becomes the pageantry, the plane, the limousines, the security and the most definitely the flag.
Like an emperor descending from this chariot, a tanned and fit President Bush made his way off the plane and onto the tarmac as the band triumphantly blared, "Hail to the Chief." Standing no more than four or five feet away from him, it hit me that the existence and reality of George W. Bush, could not in fact be removed or separated from his title as President. Further, having often not agreed with many of his policies, I was still forced to respect the sheer power of his presence.
On TV, the President seems very rehearsed, robotic and even conscious. However, in person I was surprised at the ease and charisma with which he made his way down the red carpet, inspiring friendly banter with the Canadian Ministers and delegates on hand for his arrival. Without even a second thought, he scooped up the white Cowboy hat that had been presented to him as a gift from the city's mayor and tipped his hat to the delight of photographers and media alike.
But just as I was beginning to see the President in a more natural light, the "production" had once again resumed. Standing at the foot of Air Force one, with the American President at arm's length, the Star Spangled Banner began to play. It was one of the most breathtaking scenes that I have ever witnessed.
The President, trained to perfection, stood firm and still, eyes staring straight ahead. My eyes, on the other hand were feverishly darting around trying to both soak and make sense of the moment. Cynical journalists, who had earlier complained of the slow news day and the fact that they had to wait for hours on the tarmac being blasted by the hot afternoon son, were frozen to the spot.
For a second, even on Canadian soil, it became disturbingly clear who was in charge.
As soon as the American and Canadian national anthems had played themselves out, the President resumed a brisk pace and in a matter of moments, he climbed into the Presidential white-topped helicopter. With the same gusto and pageantry that had accompanied his arrival, so to was his departure marked. In column form, three US military helicopters surrounded the plane and like a V-formation of birds flying south, the President and his entourage disappeared into the distance. .
With his departure, the momentum of the crowd and the chemistry of the moment instantly changed. The rows of people and press were no longer in tight formation. Otherwise composed reporters were giggling and seen pulling out their hand-helds to pose for photos next to Air Force One. It was a bizarre scene, to say the least.
Today, I had the opportunity and access to witness history in the making. No matter how many books or texts your read, or how many degrees you have, it is impossible to truly understand the force of power in our world, without seeing it face to face and feeling both its chilling control and breathtaking presentation.
It's funny. I thought to myself, as I watched the 43rd American President and his entourage disappear into the horizon, for all that I was an insider at this year's G8 summit, I was still very much on the outside.