Presidential History

Out to Launch

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One newsworthy event actually happened during NATO's 50th anniversary summit in Washington this spring. On April 24, President Bill Clinton departed a NATO meeting in such a rush that he left behind a crucial member of his entourage. Abandoned on the streets of downtown Washington was one of the president's military aides. Chained to that aide's wrist was a briefcase. In that briefcase were a telephone link to the Pentagon and the launch codes for the nuclear arsenal of the United States.

Popularly known as the "nuclear football," this briefcase is the world's most important piece of luggage, and its most dangerous. By careful design, it is always in the vicinity of whoever is president. The arrangement, which dates to the Eisenhower years, serves a double purpose: First, the president may need to use the briefcase at any time. Second, it is essential that no one but the president have access to the football.

So how did the forgotten aide with the briefcase get back into the president's vicinity? Did a White House limo, or military vehicle, or Secret Service sedan come screeching to a halt at the aide's last-known location? Did security personnel deploy frantically in search of him? Actually, no. Nobody missed him. When he realized he'd been forgotten, the aide decided to hoof it back to the White House on his own, briefcase in hand.

It was a half-mile stroll through downtown D.C., a lively place that would have given him plenty to think about. For example, he would have passed near an old E Street building being torn down, where a skeleton had just been found: that of a soldier missing since 1961. What happened? Who knows? The aide would also have passed near the theater on F Street where Pickup on South Street had played back in '53. In the film, Richard Widmark picks a woman's purse, not realizing she's a Red spy carrying stolen secrets, and finds himself hunted by every security force in the world. The aide would have passed numerous capital sites associated with planned political kidnappings, attempted assassinations, and many other exciting events. No doubt the aide tried to make himself seem unexceptional, waiting casually at all the "Don't Walk" signals. He eventually applied for entry at the White House gates, to the certain amazement of security.

"We are safe," the president's spokesman, Joe Lockhart, assured the press. "These things happen."

Do they? In fact, Jimmy Carter once put the nation's nuclear launch codes in his suit pocket, then sent that suit to the cleaners. These things happen all right, but only to very special presidents. The military probably changed the launch codes on both occasions.