With a slight smile, Mayor Brian Stratton raised one hand and waved as he walked across the South Lawn of the White House late Friday morning.
To his left was the Washington press corps, the rapid-fire sound of their camera shutters clicking as he passed. To his right was the president of the United States, walking in stride.
Moments later, they were aboard Marine One. Noise from the rotors sounded through the cabin as the presidential helicopter lifted past the Washington Monument.
The moment was surreal for Stratton, including that it was his first trip aboard a helicopter. Earlier this week he was attending the United States Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., wondering how he’d be able to return to Schenectady in time for Barack Obama’s visit to General Electric.
Obama initially planned to arrive in the Electric City on Jan. 11, but the visit was postponed after the tragic shooting in Tuscon, Ariz. And by the time the president’s appearance was rescheduled, Stratton’s travel plans for the conference were already locked in. The final day was Friday.
“My mind was a blur,” he recalled. “I was thinking either I can’t go to this thing or I need to find some way back.”
Then on Thursday the White House staff came up with a logical solution: Have Schenectady’s chief executive travel back to Albany with the nation’s commander-in-chief. The next day, Stratton found himself seated next to the most powerful man in the nation.
“I didn’t want to be star-struck, but you can’t help to be a little bit,” he said.
Stratton had met Obama before, but only for a handshake. This time, he was able to spend nearly two hours with the president as they toured the White House and shuffled between his two primary aircraft: the Marine One helicopter, then Air Force One.
Over their hour-long trip to Albany International Airport, they talked about sports; Stratton’s New York Mets and Obama’s Chicago Cubs. They chatted about their families: Stratton’s son Alex and the president’s daughters Malia and Sasha.
They also discussed business. Stratton talked about the tightrope of finances he walks in Schenectady — the delicate balance of maintaining essential services without driving taxes higher.
“He very much wanted to know what was on my mind,” he said.
Stratton described Obama as personable and engaged. He said the president seemed knowledgeable and genuine in learning about the issues facing Schenectady, even though he’s likely heard these same concerns from countless other political leaders.
Aboard Air Force One, Stratton and the president were joined by New York’s Senate delegation, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as U.S. Rep Paul Tonko. Freshman Republican congressmen Richard Hanna and Chris Gibson also rode in the mid-cabin with the group. Obama invited the contingent to join him for a friendly game of basketball at the White House some day.
In the rear of the airliner, Stratton caught sight of White House press secretary Robert Gibbs addressing the media. Later, after Obama was called into a briefing, Stratton had a chance to phone friends and family from the aircraft.
“That’s a kick,” he said of the calls, which are connected by an onboard operator. “You get introduced as someone who is calling from Air Force One.”
Stratton’s time with Obama dwindled after the flight landed at Albany International. He joined the congressional contingent at the rear of a motorcade bound for the General Electric plant.
During his introductory remarks, the president spoke highly of his travel companion. And he made note of the mayor’s exuberance during the trip.
“He looked like he was having a pretty good time,” Obama mused.
Later in the day, Stratton dug up an old photograph that surfaced in his memory during the trip. The image shows a younger Sam Stratton — Brian’s dad and a former mayor of Schenectady and congressman — talking to John Lindsay, the former mayor of New York City, as the two took a flight with President Lyndon Johnson on Air Force One during the 1960s.
Stratton didn’t get many of his own pictures on Air Force One — his camera was locked in the briefing room after takeoff. But the mayor said pictures weren’t really necessary.
“I’ve got enough memories in my mind.” he said.