AIR FORCE ONE is more than an airplane. It has become one of the most distinctive icons in the world.
As the personal jet of the president of the United States, it is a symbol of power, freedom, and prestige, immediately recognizable by virtually all Americans and by millions of people around the globe.
It has become part of our national mythology. It has emerged as a force in popular culture, appearing in top-rated television shows such as The West Wing, movies like Harrison Ford's 1997 hit, Air Force One, and even the comic strip "Doonesbury." It is seen regularly on the news as the president gives his famous wave from the top of the stairs. It is so glamorous that everyone from prime ministers to potentates, Hollywood actors to congressmen, urbane entertainers to hard-bitten journalists, wants to hitch a ride. And every president delights in showing off his very special airplane whenever he can.
With good reason. The bubble-topped 747 -- its blue-and-white skin waxed to a high gloss and its 231-foot, 10-inch fuselage bearing the oversized blue letters UNITED STATES OF AMERICA -- is quite possibly the most unique plane ever built. The jumbo jet is not only reconfigured to accommodate the most powerful man in the world and his advisers, but it is also crammed with the latest technological advances, from communications to security. It is in the same league as the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, and the White House in its ability to inspire feelings of national pride. "It's a majestic symbol of our country," President George W. Bush told me in an interview for this book. "It reminds me of a bird, the bald eagle, in a way. It's just a powerful look . . . Every time I see it, I'm proud of our country."
"It has," says pollster Bill McInturff, "become associated with incredibly powerful images," especially the instantly recognizable photograph of the swearing - in of President Lyndon Johnson a few hours after John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963.
The American presidency would be a far different institution if not for the global reach that Air Force One has provided. The plane transported Richard Nixon on his path-breaking trip to China in February 1972 and to the Soviet Union in May 1972. In the 1980s, it took Ronald Reagan to his superpower summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, Reykjavik, and Moscow. It carried Bill Clinton on more foreign trips than any other president -- 133 over eight years. And it hopscotched George W. Bush from one secure location to another in the harrowing hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
LIKE ALL SUCCESSFUL institutions, the presidency adapts to the times. And since the Great Depression in the 1930s, the nation's chief executive has accommodated himself to more profound changes than ever before -- in world affairs, politics, culture, the economy, and nearly every other aspect of national life. This period encompassed World War II and the cold war, cycles of prosperity and downturn, insularity and globalism, liberalism and conservatism.
One of the least noted but nevertheless important changes in the presidency has been generated by something that nearly every American today takes for granted: the ability to fly to any point on the globe, without undue strain or hardship, in a reasonable amount of time. This simple fact has made America's leader an international figure able to bring his ideas to places that presidents never dreamed of reaching a half century ago.
To that end, the president's plane has become an indispensable tool of his office, and the 12 chief executives who have taken to the air have logged 7 million miles since Franklin D. Roosevelt's first presidential flight, in 1943. "I can get more done on this plane!" Ronald Reagan said during a 1983 interview in his airborne office. "For example, I do a lot of letter writing, a lot of mail that I choose to answer myself, and I usually do it with a yellow tablet here . . . I can come back with a tablet full and all the letters attached to it and hand it in to the office to be typed and for my signature . . . There is instant communications and not only with the White House, but many times there've been international conversations on this plane . . . But I have found that like in so many things domestically and so many things in every other part of our lives, face to face, getting to know the other heads of state, on a personal basis, I can actually say that we have established personal friendships with these people and . . . [Air Force One] has made it much more possible."
Bill Clinton told me: "I think in general a lot of presidents need more time alone than they get. You don't want it to be an excuse for avoiding hard decisions or the day-to-day work of the office. But my main times alone were on Air Force One and then when I was upstairs in the second-floor office in the White House . . . I worked a lot late at night so I could be alone, read the things I wanted to read, and think about the things I thought I needed to think about . . . Throughout the whole time I was president, I spent a lot of time alone on Air Force One. Especially when other people would sleep, I could just be there. Sometimes it was the first time in days I had been in a place where I could be away from the phones and away from mandatory meetings."
DWIGHT EISENHOWER, the third chief executive to fly, understood from the start that he was dealing with an important new dynamic. As he wrote more than four decades ago: "Behind all these other changes in the middle years of the 1950s loomed the changes of science, remaking the world and bringing new problems. More and more, the jet aircraft, the nuclear power plant, the hydrogen bomb, the ballistic missile were coming into the consciousness of all of us. When I entered the White House I traveled in a piston-driven plane, the Columbine. But before I left, my Air Force aide, Colonel Draper, had had to go to school to learn how to fly a new presidential airplane, a 707 jet."
It is significant that Ike mentioned jet travel in the same breath as nuclear power plants and the hydrogen bomb. He clearly saw it as one of the most important developments of his time, and he was right. It quickly became not only a symbol of the power of the presidency, but also what former Vice President Walter Mondale called, in an interview for this book, "an enormous symbol of American technological excellence."
IN ADDITION TO expanding the president's reach and serving as an international symbol, Air Force One has, over the past quarter century, become an invaluable window on the presidents themselves. It has evolved into a very special habitat, created by each president, that magnifies his virtues and flaws -- and reveals that there is a real human being underneath the public façade.
Aboard Air Force One, a president has control over his surroundings without the intrusions, routines, and protocols of the West Wing. Presidents spend too much time within the confines of the plane, often under intense pressure and with little sleep, surrounded by confidants and friends, to keep their guard up for very long. As they cruise the endless skies during the course of endless hours, the essence of each individual will emerge.
As a result, Air Force One provides a unique view of a president's personality and character, a distillery of every quirk and foible, and a refuge where a chief executive can be observed in his natural state. If a president is a bully or a lout, as was Lyndon Johnson; if he is generous and kind, as was Gerald Ford; if he treats his subordinates with respect or disdain -- all this will come across on the plane.
Historian Doug Brinkley says, "The White House is now a glass house. Everything is being watched and monitored, and it's very hard to create your own habitat there. But aboard Air Force One, a president is away from the media frenzy below. It's like commuting in a car. You get a contemplative space that you don't find anywhere else. You're getting a kind of tranquil oasis in a turbulent world, and a lot of decisions have been made in the sky."
In different ways, all 12 of the "flying presidents" used the plane to impress staff and guests with their power and personality and as a political instrument to lobby members of Congress and others to support their agendas. Several, especially Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton, seemingly used it to divert attention from their troubles in Washington by making high-profile trips abroad.
"In a sense, a president on Air Force One is a president more alone than he can be in the West Wing, whether he's winging his way to China or departing from the nation's capital for the final time," says Karl Rove, White House counselor to President George W. Bush. "On Air Force One, you see the president more as a single individual, not the great institution of the office. You see the presidents as they truly are."
Adds David Gergen, a journalist and political strategist who has advised presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton: "This is a place where you can let your guard down very easily . . . Part of it is you're physically much closer to people than you are sitting in the formal Oval Office setting. They're three feet away from you and there's almost a psychological tendency in a group like that to get into the spirit of intimacy. It's a setting which encourages more candid conversation."
"The most obvious thing is the degree to which some of these presidents become isolated up there in front of the plane," Gergen says. "In Nixon's case it was chosen. He wanted a private space. It was a carryover from the way he conducted his presidency. Nixon wanted to keep a wall . . . Reagan tended to be more of a loner than people think. He was extremely affable but liked privacy. The mental picture one carries in his head is of Reagan and Nancy sitting forward in the plane. The mental picture you have of Nixon is Nixon alone in the plane.
"The mental picture you have of Clinton," Gergen continues, "is him staying up front part of the time but wanting to come back and watch movies with the staff, and sitting around playing cards . . . What was certainly reinforced for me with Clinton was his need to be surrounded by people, how energized he was by talking."
Copyright © 2003 Kenneth T. Walsh
Award-winning White House correspondent and presidential historian
Kenneth T. Walsh’s latest book,
Celebrity in Chief
A History of the Presidents and the culture of stardom
A comprehensive look at the history of America’s presidents
as “celebrities in chief”
since the beginning of the Republic.