Strangers on a plane: An intoxicated tale of bipartisanship

Just seven days ago, Joan Kirchner had drawn a middle coach seat on the 3 p.m. Delta flight from D.C. to Atlanta. Her boss, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, was in first-class.

A stranger arrived — a Delta million-miler who preferred an aisle seat. A late booking had awarded him the window, but it was no matter. He is the type who can sleep on planes, and immediately nodded off.

Eventually, Drunk Guy plodded down the aisle and claimed his aisle seat, completing the trio who would travel elbow-to-elbow for the next 90 minutes. He was a big fellow and, judging from his language and physique, probably ex-military.

“The party started right away,” Kirchner said. There was loud singing, punches to the arm, and alcohol fumes that might have been tapped as a secondary fuel source, had the plane run shy of kerosene.

Kirchner is a rail-thin Irish redhead. She is Isakson’s chief of staff, and served Zell Miller in the same role before that. She is also the wife of Attorney General Chris Carr.

But she cut her teeth as a reporter in the state Capitol, and so has fielded her fair share of lizard-brained men who’ve had too much to drink. And yet, minutes into the flight, Kirchner’s radar failed her.

Drunk Guy looked across to the sleeping stranger and asked Kirchner, “How long have you two been together?”

“I don’t know this man. Never met him,” she snapped.

Kirchner had just told Drunk Guy that she was traveling alone. Upon which, he raised his left arm, wrapped it around her shoulders, and pulled her close.

Her voice rose above the din of jet turbines: “Don’t touch me! Get your hands off me!” Whereupon the stranger beside her woke up.

There was no confrontation, no drama. But neither did the stranger shirk. “He could have pretended to be asleep,” Kirchner said. “Instead, he immediately sat up, pulled out his laptop and started working.”

(The stranger might have pulled out his book instead, but Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" is peppered with the n-word, and Delta coach is an intimate setting. He didn't want Kirchner to think that she was sandwiched between a drunk and a racist.)

Ultimately, Drunk Guy got up and headed aft, presumably for the bathroom. In his absence, the stranger offered to change seats with Kirchner. She declined. Still, the stranger let her know that he would stay awake the rest of the flight — just in case.

When Drunk Guy returned, it was with a cup of coffee in one hand and two filched mini-bottles of vodka. He downed the latter in two swift gulps. More touching and more protests ensued, ultimately catching the eye of a flight attendant, who did some consulting — and then returned.

“Ma’am, you need to move,” she said.

“Yes, I do,” Kirchner agreed.

But by this time, D.G. — for that is what his friends no doubt call him — had passed out. The flight attendant gently attempted to roust him, but without success.

That’s when Kirchner took charge and sent a sharp Dublin elbow into Drunk Guy’s ribs. Hard. She did not say so, but when she recounted this part of her adventure, there was a note of pleasure in her voice.

Drunk Guy opened his eyes, and moved enough to let Kirchner escape to another part of the plane. She declined to press charges (and, unlike Ann Coulter, had nothing but good things to say about Delta’s response). Nonetheless, an officer of the law was waiting at the gate in Atlanta to let Drunk Guy know that he’d been marked.

And so Kirchner and the stranger on a plane parted. Two days later, Kirchner and her husband were at a family birthday party here in Atlanta. She recounted her nightmarish plane trip — which brought her sister-in-law up short. On her smart phone, said sister-in-law pulled up a Facebook page, where a friend told of a woman who had been assaulted on a recent flight to Atlanta. The ending was slightly different, but also featured Drunk Guy:

"She was able to move to a new seat. A couple minutes later he reached over to me to fist-bump. Let's just say he didn't get the response that he was hoping for."

The Facebook page belongs to state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta. He was the stranger who sat beside Kirchner.

Friends of Holcomb and Kirchner have marveled at the coincidence that brought a Democrat and Republican together. A dinner, with spouses and mutual friends, is in their future.

I am of the opposite opinion. I am appalled – perhaps “disappointed” is a better word — that it took a drunk to arrange an introduction. Allow me to explain.

Kirchner works for the most popular Republican among Democrats in Georgia. Roy Barnes, the last Democratic governor of Georgia, endorsed Isakson's re-election last year. Just last week, the New York Times, in a tribute to his bipartisan reputation, singled out Isakson's Senate Veterans Affairs Committee as one of the few functioning entities in Congress.

Holcomb, likewise, has burnished bipartisan credentials. In 2016, the Democratic lawyer formed an alliance with House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, to push through legislation to require the processing of thousands of rape kits warehoused by law enforcement.

Holcomb is well-respected among House Republicans, though admiration wanes on Senate side. That's where Renee Unterman, R-Buford, had attempted to block Holcomb's rape kit bill, and ended up the butt of two episodes of Samantha Bee's comedy/news show, "Full Frontal."

In other words, both Kirchner and Holcomb are both card-carrying members of Georgia’s political middle.

In decades past, they wouldn’t have been strangers on a plane. Each would have been required to know the other, because the middle is where Georgia’s political business was conducted.

Bipartisanship is nearly a hanging offense these days. Last month, as the Senate Republican effort to repeal Obamacare teetered, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told his GOP colleagues that he might have to resort to working with Democrats. He meant it as a threat.

But perhaps I’m a curmudgeon who can’t see a sapling of progress for the trees.

Holcomb, for instance, notes that many of his friends are Republican. Even his wife. “So we have a bipartisan household,” he said.

Kirchner prefers to think of the incident as proof that people of different political philosophies still share a certain moral baseline. “I think we proved that — without even knowing what each other’s politics was,” she said.

Me? I will wait to see what comes out of the Kirchner-Holcomb dinner summit in August. In the meantime, I intend to ask Delta to raise the quality of traveling companions it provides.