CHICAGO – Hillary Clinton has traded private jets for seats on commercial airlines as she embarks on her second, humbler presidential run. But even in this relatively more democratic mode of transit, the former secretary of state is mostly kept apart from the everyday Americans her campaign wants to champion.
Clinton does not fly the commercial the way you fly commercial. Thanks to strict security concerns, Clinton is insulated from the public from the moment she arrives at one airport to the time she leaves the second one. And even when trapped in a metal tube in the sky with fellow passengers, there are few opportunities for public interaction.
While the insulation is largely outside of Clinton’s control and determined by the Secret Service, it underscores the logistical difficulties Clinton will have in connecting with ordinary voters on her second campaign.
On Tuesday afternoon in Dubuque, Iowa, a few dozen passengers waited for their routine American Airlines flight to Chicago, one of only three flights scheduled from the tiny airport that day. Suddenly, a small motorcade pulled up, just outside the floor-to-ceiling windows that separate the airport’s only gate from the tarmac.
Secret Service agents piled out, followed by aides. And then Hillary Clinton emerged from a red minivan. On the tarmac, she shook hands and chatted with a woman in a red jacket and her campaign’s state director. Inside, passengers rushed to the windows and raised their smartphones to snap pictures.
After wrapping up her five minute conversation, Clinton walked into a small corridor that leads from the terminal to the plane, putting her just feet away from passengers inside, with only a glass door in between.
An older man knocked on the glass like he was tapping on a fish tank and Clinton turned to give a big, enthusiastic wave. She made an “OK” sign with her thumb and ring finger and smiled. A moment later, she was lead onboard and took a window seat in the first row. The small commuter plane had only one class.
She did not pass through TSA screening, though some of her campaign aides did.
With a bulkhead in front of her, a window to her right, and trusted aide Huma Abedin between her and the aisle, Clinton donned sunglasses and looked at her BlackBerry as passengers boarded.
The seats around were filled by Secret Service agents, and then campaign staff further back. No one approached her during the short flight.
Upon arrival, Clinton and her entourage were quickly whisked off the plane. Inside, Chicago’s O’Hare airport, she was almost immediately surrounded by onlookers and fans. She paused for a few selfies and to shake some hands, but an aide told fans they were in a rush and Clinton got moving.
The former secretary of state pulled her own black wheeled suitcase with a pink purse balanced on top. Over her should hung a green tote bag from Lardee’s, a small gift shop she visited earlier in the afternoon where she purchased a book and two toys.
Clinton had only to travel about 50 feet across the terminal and into a secure area, where she disappeared from view before the other passengers on her flight had even collected their gate-checked luggage.
There were no opportunities for a reporter who happened to be on her flight to speak with her. Earlier in the day, she had taken questions from the press for the first time in 28 days.
It’s a routine Clinton will likely repeat often as she ramps up her travel. On her way to Las Vegas this month, Clinton paused for a group shot with a JetBlue ground crew, presumably after being driven to the plane like she was in Iowa.
Ditching the private jets that Clinton used frequently since stepping down as secretary of state was an obvious move for a candidate trying to reintroduce herself to the American people as a more modest version of her 2008 campaign self.
But the candidate’s commercial flying is about more than symbolism.
In her many years in public life, Clinton has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on private jets, sometimes at taxpayer or campaign donors’ expense, causing controversy on more than one occasion.
For instance, her 2006 Senate campaign, when she faced limited Republican opposition, was famously spendthrift, dolling out $160,000 on private airfare. Her 2008 presidential campaign, meanwhile, ran out of money thanks in part to liberal use of private charters.
This time, Clinton’s campaign – and especially her proudly frugal campaign manager Robby Mook – have vowed to be more careful with funds. That means many more American Eagle flights from Iowa to Chicago.