Kenneth T. Walsh Author Speaker. & Award winning Journalist image

Q&A: Author on U.S. Presidential Jet Air Force One

David Braun

National Geographic News

May 29, 2003


There have been several books and film documentaries about Air Force One. How's yours different?


My book about Air Force One is different from past efforts in several ways. For one thing, it is not just about the aircraft—which was the main focus of other projects about Air Force One. Instead, I looked at the aircraft and at the special habitats that the 12 "flying presidents" have created for themselves on board. This is really a book about people, not hardware, and I have tried to provide a unique insight into life aboard Air Force One that readers will enjoy—all presented in an extremely readable, engaging style.


My access was extraordinary. I have covered the White House for U.S. News & World Report since 1986 and I know many of the insiders whose stories made this book come alive. For example, I interviewed five of the six living presidents (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush) for the book—President Reagan could not participate because of his Alzheimer's Disease—and spoke to more than 100 other officials, including stewards, pilots, key advisers, and presidential friends who have traveled aboard the aircraft.


You say that the most dramatic day in the history of Air Force One was September 11, 2001. Can you tell our readers why this is so.


The events of September 11, 2001 showed, first of all, that Air Force One could be an effective airborne command center in a national emergency. This premise had never been fully tested before.


President Bush also demonstrated that he could be an effective commander in chief. There had been considerable concern about this, and many Americans had been wondering if he was up to the job. On 9/11, he erased most people's doubts.


The drama of that day was clear from the moment the first hijacked airliner hit the World Trade Center. It was the worst terrorist attack in American history. Amid the horror, no one, not even the president, could be sure what would happen next.


How and why does Air Force One magnify the strengths and weaknesses of the Presidents, bringing out their true personalities?


Air Force One brings out the true personalities of the Presidents in a variety of ways. The presidents themselves and many people who have flown with them told me that spending endless hours in the aircraft at close quarters intensifies camaraderie and candor, and strengthens the bonds of friendship. In addition, Presidents find Air Force One a refuge because it is free from many of the protocols, routines, and meetings that dominate life in the West Wing. Finally, Presidents spend so much time on Air Force One with trusted friends and advisers that they can't keep their guard up for very long. As a result, on Air Force One we see them as they really are.


Air Force One, you write, impresses the public. The Presidents like to use it as a backdrop when they're campaigning. It's a political tool used to dispense favors because some people think it is more of a privilege to ride on the President's plane than to visit him in the White House. Why does Air Force One have this effect on people?


The mystique of Air Force One exists for a number of reasons. For starters, it is a very impressive-looking aircraft, distinctive in many ways. Few Americans have been aboard; no public tours are allowed of the planes (in contrast to the White House). Most of Air Force One is also off limits to the media. This lack of access creates considerable curiosity about the planes and what the presidents do when they are aboard. And some very powerful images are associated with Air Force One, especially the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson aboard the president's plane a few hours after President Kennedy was assassinated and, of course, the events of 9/11.


Most people will never see the interior of Air Force One. From what we know, it looks like one of the world's most expensive and luxurious business jets. The Presidents don't travel only in the one plane—you say that an identical Boeing 747 accompanies it as a decoy and back-up. The total cost to the taxpayer to operate Air Force One, you write, is U.S. $180 million a year. Then there are all the other aircraft involved in the entourage. You write that on a single trip in 2000 President Clinton used 60 aircraft at a total cost of $63 million. Why is it that there's no public resistance to this kind of expense?


From time to time, the media or members of Congress will raise questions about the soaring expenses of Presidential travel. But the public rarely gets outraged and the fuss never lasts for long. My theory is that Americans believe their leader has a very tough job to do, and they want him to travel in style, comfort, and safety. Paying for Air Force One and Presidential travel is widely considered a necessity of modern leadership.


Doesn't it seem odd that with so much money being spent to fly the President around, the U.S. Air Force charges him a few dollars for each meal he has on board?


Sometimes the accounting practices of government, and the private sector for that matter, are hard to comprehend.


Is Air Force One really a sanctuary for the President, where he can get away from the grinding pressures of the Presidency? Doesn't it seem that the President is also at risk flying around in such a big target? After all, there were real fears that the plane was a target on September 11, 2001 and a guard was even posted at the door of the cockpit on that day.


Yes, Air Force One is indeed a sanctuary for the Presidents. It's a big target, but every President I've spoken to has full confidence in the Secret Service and the military to protect him.


If the President can use Air Force One to escape from the political heat—as you indicate Presidents Nixon and Clinton did—isn't there a danger that the Presidents can cut themselves off from reality and become too isolated, both by being aloft and also by traveling abroad too much?


You raise a good point. Presidents can become isolated aboard Air Force One—Richard Nixon was a good example. He kept to himself and the isolation intensified his tendency to be a solitary brooder. Too much travel also can swell a President's ego, especially if a President makes too many visits abroad and neglects domestic trips. It's unusual for an American President to experience the kind of adulation at home that can occur abroad, especially in countries that have benefited from an administration's policies or that want to curry favor with America's leader. Examples: President Clinton's rock-star reception in Belfast and Dublin, and President Kennedy's tumultuous welcome in Berlin.


You've flown on Air Force One some 200 times. What's it really like to be a correspondent at the back of the plane? Have you ever been given the tour, seen the whole aircraft, interviewed the President in his airborne office? What kind of antics do the press get up to in the back of the plane?


I have traveled aboard Air Force One more than 200 times over the past 17 years, while I have been the White House correspondent for U.S. News. I have seen most of the plane, and interviewed President Bush in his airborne office at the front of the aircraft.


What's it like for a correspondent?


Not as glamorous as you might think. While the President travels in style and utmost comfort, the media are confined to a small cabin at the back of the plane, just forward of a galley and a restroom. We have first-class seats and it's always a privilege to fly with the commander in chief. But we can't leave that cabin unless we are escorted by someone in authority, and the only things we know about the goings-on are, as a rule, what a small number of people tell us, not what we observe first-hand. That generally means that our information is limited to the remarks of the press secretary or one of his assistants.


The food is basically military chow, although the stewards try their best to prepare tasty, nutritious meals. Still, no one wants to spend very much money on airborne food, so there is a limit to what can be done.


We can watch movies in the press compartment to pass the time, and we make selections from the in-flight video library, which consists of first- and second-run films. There are surprisingly few "antics" in the press cabin. Journalists are quite serious about their work and sensitive about their image these days, and few would do anything that might be considered embarrassing on the President's plane. Of course, there is a looser atmosphere aboard the press plane.


You write that the Presidents have learned to avoid the press compartment because they can no longer have off-the-record conversations with journalists (owing to the fact that the wire services and some other media refuse to treat anything the President says as off the record). In your opinion, is this a healthy development for the relationship between the President and the press? Has anything been lost now that there are apparently no aspects of the Presidency that cannot be reported?


I think there is a place for off-camera and off-the-record conversations with Presidents. Reporters should know the nation's leader as well as possible to better understand his decisions and his policies, and his character and personality. It's unfortunate that there is such distrust and cynicism on both sides that we hold each other at bay. As a result, public understanding of the Presidency suffers.


Kenneth T. Walsh has covered the White House since 1986. He is the former president of the White House Correspondents Association. He works for U.S. News & World Report. The author of two books, Ronald Reagan and Feeding the Beast, Walsh has served as adjunct professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C., and is often a guest on MSNBC, Fox News, and other television and radio programs. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.


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