No, it wasn’t real fun. And it wasn’t that interesting, either.
But when the vice president comes, you go.
For five hours on Thursday, I was at Caterpillar’s Tinaja Hills training center covering the visit. That’s about as long as some of you claim to have been stuck in traffic after I-19 was shut down for Vice President Mike Pence. (Yes, we tried to get information ahead of time on closures; no, they wouldn’t talk. Everything’s on a need-to-know basis with security at those levels, and they apparently didn’t think you needed to know.)
I arrived about 10 a.m. after a beautiful four-mile drive that you can’t take — through those green rolling hills from the Caterpillar security hut off Duval Mine Road south to their training facility behind the mine. The road itself is in pristine condition, which tells you it’s private — because Pima County sure doesn’t have anything like that.
(If you want a better idea of where the Caterpillar facility is, it’s roughly a mile south of Continental Road, then about six miles west of I-19.)
The TV people had to arrive at the venue at 8 a.m., so I should be grateful I’m in print.
At 10, the journalists were herded into a room on the Caterpillar main grounds about a mile away so the security folks (and dog) could sweep the area where Pence would be speaking. (Caterpillar, by the way, did an outstanding job handling all of this — and I can guess it’s no easy thing dealing with Washington types, all of whom are certain they’re more important than you.)
We were bused over to the outdoor venue around 11:15 a.m. and waited about an hour and a half, during which time I began to turn a beautiful shade of deep-pink-headed for-lobster-red.
There was plenty of Secret Service (yes, most of them wear dark glasses) and other security people who could twist you into a pretzel with a simple look.
And don’t forget the helicopter sweeping the desert, a couple of snipers stashed in the shovels of Caterpillar equipment and probably an agent or two disguised as food-service workers.
I shot the breeze with Christopher Conover of Arizona Public Media (Channel 6) — one terrific journalist. I learned he’s a certified SCUBA instructor and has been to Tonga. I savor those morsels because they were about the most interesting thing I heard all day.
I didn’t know a lot of the journalists at the site (mostly local; I think the bigger outfits bailed after Pence’s earlier Scottsdale appearance).
The vice president arrived a bit late with Sen. Martha McSally, Gov. Doug Ducey and Jim Umpleby, a regular-guy type who’s the CEO of Caterpillar. Umpleby and McSally wore jeans. Ducey wore a smug look, but maybe he just has one of those faces.
They then rolled out the trucks — about a half-dozen Caterpillar vehicles, each bigger than the one before. Very impressive, especially when they put on a remote-control demonstration — no drivers in the trucks. (They told us they had a special “stop” button in case one went rogue.)
Then McSally, Ducey and Umpleby spoke before Pence headed to the microphone to champion the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), a trade deal that has a lot of support in Congress and likely will be signed this month.
After that, it pretty much turned into a campaign rally.
Then the vice president and his Arizona entourage climbed up into one of the big Caterpillar vehicles for a photo op while Umpleby explained what they were looking at.
The journalists kept the cameras clicking — not so much for the photos, but just in case one of them pulled a Gerald Ford and fell down the steps.
Pence took no questions but gave an “exclusive” interview to a local TV reporter.
It’s usually poor form to go after a fellow journalist — we all work hard and most of us consider it a calling and privilege to do this job. And it’s not easy.
But this guy brought a big bag of softballs to the interview, and Pence knocked every one of them out of the park. They talked about immigration, trade, jobs and the wall. What they didn’t talk about was the fact that just a day earlier Pence had been dragged into the growing Ukraine debacle.
You’re a journalist, standing in front of you is the current key figure in the hottest news story on the planet, and you don’t ask the question.
Pence turned out to be charismatic and merciful — he saw people wilting under the sun (he even left the stage for a brief time himself) and cut his speech short. That probably won a lot of votes right there.
He left and nobody could move until he’d cleared the area, which I assume was when he reached I-19. During the wait, I talked to Ron Barber, a former congressman and current district director for Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. (Whether or not you agree with his politics, the man’s a class act.)
Oh, the howls
I headed back to the office and was crossing over I-19 at Duval Mine Road at about 3 p.m. — just as workers were removing barriers and reopening the interstate. I wasn’t sorry I missed the mess, but I sure heard about it when I got back to the newsroom. My voicemail was full and we’d taken plenty of calls (including one from a woman who suggested it was the newspaper that ordered the roads to be closed to make Pence look bad. Lady, if I had that kind of power...).
Everybody wanted to know why they didn’t fly Pence in by helicopter, but the only people who could answer that question weren’t talking.
Not everybody was groaning. An enthusiastic contingent of about 40 people cheered on Pence as his motorcade passed through the intersection at Duval Mine Road and La Canada Drive. We see plenty of Democrats taking to street corners around here; it’s good to know Republicans are willing to step up when their hearts are filled, too.
Despite the inconvenience, having the vice president stop in isn’t a waste of money, and is, in fact, important. Though this was a semi-private event, it was open to the media and a couple hundred regular people got to see one of our leaders up close. That’s worthwhile, and it is one of the many obligations of leadership — get out among the people.
But it wasn’t the first time this has happened around these parts.
Welcome, Mr. President
In the run-up to publishing our Green Valley 50th anniversary book a few years back, I flipped through nearly every issue of the Green Valley News (we started publishing in 1964, so this took a while).
I recall reading about a vice president visiting — and staying the night — in Green Valley. Despite two hours of searching every edition from 1969-76, on Friday night, I couldn’t find the article. It was either Spiro Agnew or Nelson Rockefeller who visited in the early to mid-70s.
But I found something better: President Ford visited Tubac and Nogales on Oct. 21, 1974. And the Green Valley News was there to capture the excitement.
But wait, there’s more!
He wasn’t alone. Ford, who’d been in office a little over two months after Nixon resigned, was joined by Mexican President Luis Echeverria. Who, by the way, is still alive at 97. (Note to Pence handlers: Both arrived by helicopter.)
The GV News reported at the time that Tubac was packed with school kids to see the two presidents.
“They carried colorful made-in-school signs — some of them enormous — reading, ‘Mr. President, we love you,’ and, ‘Welcome to Tubac, El Presidente.’”
It went on: “Max White, the new principal at Santa Cruz Valley School District 35, was out in front of the barriers, shepherding his charges and warning them against impolite conduct.” (We all could use a bit of direction from Mr. White these days.)
Publisher Ted Turpin wrote: “Mr. Echeverria seemed especially charmed by the many dark-haired, dark-eyed youngsters of obvious Mexican ancestry; he put his hand atop the heads of several and spoke to them briefly in Spanish.”
Good heavens, people would picket the paper if we wrote it that way today. I even hesitated to tell you I turned pink.
OK, Tubac’s not Green Valley, but then neither is the Caterpillar facility. We’ll call it “close enough.”
If any other presidents or vice presidents have come through, we’ve either forgotten, didn’t know, or they were going 75 mph down (a probably closed) Interstate 19.
As we close the book on this one, I’m not sure if I’m more glad that it happened or that it’s over.
— Dan Shearer