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Ski Resort Life

The $5.7 Million Ski Trip

Warren Miller's take on a First Family's ski trip

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Originally published in the November 2000 issue of SKI Magazine

The flashing lights of the Utah state police appeared in my rearview mirror one spring day in 1997. The police car’s loudspeaker blared, “Turn off at the next off ramp.” I did as I was told and was surprised when the police car didn’t follow me off the freeway. Two minutes later, what seemed like a dozen or more black vehicles, all bearing U.S. government license plates, sped by. President Bill Clinton, together with your tax dollars, was bringing Chelsea and Hillary to Deer Valley, Utah, for a Learn to Ski Weekend.

When the First Family learned to ski, American taxpayers payed dearly
When the First Family learned to ski, American taxpayers payed dearly

According to most of the Republican bean counters in the state of Utah, who monitored every tax dollar spent, it turned out to be the most expensive Learn to Ski Weekend in history.

Let’s start with transportation. On Thursday, the President and Hillary flew from Washington, D.C., to Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., to pick up Chelsea. Then they turned around and flew to Salt Lake City, Utah. On Sunday night, Air Force One jetted Chelsea back to Stanford and then returned to Washington, D.C., to drop off Bill and Hillary at the White House.

Air Force One has a fixed daily operating overhead of $37,000.00, not including mileage. There is also an Air Force Two that flies everywhere Air Force One goes. This is in case Air Force One runs off of the runway or the bedrooms are all occupied. That’s another $37,000.00 a day for the second plane, which doesn’t include the cost per mile to fly each of the 747s, nor does it include the dozens of army soldiers who guard the two planes 24 hours a day when they are parked.

Add to these costs the many technicians on board who keep in touch with the goings on around the world, as well as three shifts of half a dozen Secret Service agents with earplugs and concealed weapons to guard the First Family. Also not added to the bill was the cost of a dozen or more Learn to Ski Weeks to teach the Secret Service agents how to ski in front of, and behind, Chelsea and Hillary as they lurched and groped down the beginner’s slopes at speeds that sometimes approached six miles per hour. These Secret Service agents’ Learn to Ski Weeks had to occur at the resort where Hillary and Chelsea would be skiing so they could pick out the runs that would be safe from any onlookers or hidden cameramen. The instruction cost about $1,200.00 per security guard and that doesn’t include their flight out on special government jet aircraft. Twelve times $1,200.00 is another $14,400.00 to add to the President’s Learn to Ski Weekend bill.

There were a reported 136 people in the White House family entourage who descended on Deer Valley. This group included guards, cooks, advisors and attorneys, as well as some technicians, whose only job was to make sure the First Family’s edges were sharp and their bindings adjusted exactly right. All of them had to be flown out from Washington, D.C., and housed and fed in previously secured condos.

They also had to be driven from the Salt Lake City airport to Deer Valley, so your tax dollars also had to fly eight bulletproof limousines from Washington, D.C., on a C-147 cargo plane. This massive airplane costs about as much to operate per day as Air Force One, so tack on an additional $37,000.00 per day, plus mileage.

The Ski Weekend consisted of Hillary and Chelsea doing a little traversing and kick-turning on a ski slope where no one else was allowed, except two instructors and six Secret Service men, while Bill relaxed in a Democratic party donor’s very large house and caught up on his reading and cigar smoking. The press reported that Bill read his latest fan mail and tried to calculate the number of jokes that had been written about him since he took office. Remember that this was during the Monica Lewinsky days when he was trying to understand the meaning of “is.”

On Sunday morning, anyone who had not been previously cleared by the CIA and the FBI was asked to leave downtown Park City because Bill wanted to go downtown and mingle with the skierrs. No snowboarders, please. This forced the closing of about half of the retail shops in town, because there were so many ski bums without green cards from half a dozen different countries working in them (these people are sometimes called “illegal aliens”).

While Hillary and Chelsea tried to traverse and kick-turn on the absolute beginner’s hill, President Bill Clinton was chauffeured to downtown Park City from Deer Valley in one of the many bulletproof limousines that had been flown out from Washington, D.C., for just such spur-of-the-moment, mingle-with-the-masses side trips. Once there, he commented on how few people were in town. Of course, his advisors forgot to tell him that everyone would be up riding the chairlifts at 11:30 on a sunny powder snow morning.

In town, Bill had a cup of coffee, no cream, while the TV cameras took sound bites of his “pressing the flesh of Democratic Utah voters.” It was also reported that the president tried to buy a book with his credit card, but the card had expired shortly after he took office. So an aide paid for the book.

While all of this was going on, there was a small group of Utah Republicans who were keeping track of how much the weekend was costing American taxpayers. When they added up the expenses of the White House staff, Air Force One, Air Force Two and the C-147 for four days, and the round-the-clock-army guards to protect them from souvenir hunters, the final tally for the First Family Learn to Ski Weekend was reported to be $5.7 million-almost as much as the six-bedroom house they were staying in.

This is about $1 million more than was raised to build the original streets, the water and sewer systems, the powerlines and the first gondola and chairlifts so that Vail could open in 1962. It’s also enough money to teach about 114,000 novices to ski, if you consider that discounted two-day Learn to Ski packages cost as little as $50 today.

If skier-in-denial Al Gore wins the White House this fall, taxpayers can expect more gold-plated ski vacations during the next four winters. Perhaps the First Family will go to Democratically friendly Aspen, where they have raised campaign fundraising to an art form (unfortunately for Al and Tipper, both Dan Quayle and Jack Kemp have homes in Vail, though it hasn’t kept the veep and his family out of the Back Bowls). If George W. Bush wins, Air Force One and its entourage will probably fly over the snow-covered ski areas to some bass-fishing resort where your tax dollars will flow faster than Old Man River instead of falling out of the sky like snowflakes.

So these are our tax dollars at work? Suddenly, I think I need a vacation.

Warren Miller is the author of three books, including his autobiography Freedom Found. You can read an excerpt from the book here.