As one reads Kenneth T. Walsh’s Air Force One: A History of Presidents and Their Planes, one from time to time feels the urge to stand up and exclaim, “Work it, brother, work it!” This would be in professional appreciation for the mulish persistence of a veteran journalist in the undeterrable pursuit of a slender story. To make it seem that Air Force One–an airplane, remember, a flying bus–has enough conceptual integrity and heft to earn itself a book (instead of, say, a longish article in American Heritage), Walsh lays it on with a trowel. Air Force One, he tells us, is “a symbol of power, freedom and prestige, immediately recognizable by virtually all Americans and by millions of people around the world.” Air Force One, he tells us, is “part of our national mythology,” “a force in popular culture,” and something–get this–that “is regularly seen on the news.” To buttress this hyperbole, he trots out the most expert of expert witnesses. He quotes President George W. Bush saying, “It’s a majestic symbol of our country. It reminds me of a bird, the bald eagle in a way.” He quotes former president Bill Clinton saying, “We had actually quite a lot of eventful decisions that had to be made on Air Force One.” He quotes former vice president Walter Mondale calling Air Force One “an enormous symbol of American technological excellence.”
Well, far be it from me, a blue American, to question in this period of perpetual crisis anything the president has to say, but calling any plane “a majestic symbol” of America on a par with a bald eagle does seem to betray the speaker as poetically challenged. And far be it from me to doubt anything President Clinton has to say, but when any baby boomer manages to work the words “actually” and “quite a lot” into a sentence, feel free to tell the chef to put weasel on the menu. And far be it from me to make fun of the flat, underwhelming oratory of Fritz Mondale. But the rest of you can go ahead.
As if it wasn’t enough for Air Force One to be a myth and a symbol and a pop star and the locus of power, Walsh, the chief White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, would also like us to believe that the plane is “an invaluable window on the presidents themselves,” “a very special habitat…that magnifies his virtues and flaws and reveals there is a real human being underneath the public facade.” Now, it is quite true that each president he discusses seems to have behaved differently on board the plane, but it’s not as though they were otherwise peas in a pod. Walsh also tries to advance the proposition that Air Force One was a place where the presidents could let down their guard and be seen in a more informal setting. This thesis seems best proven by presidents like Reagan and Clinton, who from time to time in general would let down their guard and informally take off a shirt to chop brush or informally take off their pants to counsel an intern, or what have you. But as Walsh points out, other less gregarious presidents like Nixon and Carter spent much of their time on Air Force One aloof or alone. So it doesn’t really seem like the plane is a big flying Valium. Walsh does make the case that most of the presidents valued their time on Air Force One for the time it allowed them to be alone with their thoughts.
Is there nothing special about Air Force One? Of course there is, and it all devolves from the fact that it hauls around the president of the United States. The Air Force began using the radio call designation “Air Force One” to refer to the president’s plane during Eisenhower’s administration, and the name entered popular parlance during the Kennedy era. If it has any symbolic value, it is as a symbol of the post-FDR president–the most powerful man in the world in the most powerful country in the world. It’s not like, say, a Bond car, whose gadgets bestow certain coolness on whoever happens to be driving. If the country had a big yard sale and we sold Air Force One to Mark Cuban, the plane would very quickly symbolize the Dallas Mavericks.
Perhaps the group to whom Air Force One is most special is the presidents. In early 21st-century America, there is nothing cooler among the CEO class than a personal jet, and among personal jets, there is nothing cooler than Air Force One. This is because it helps flying seem cool again. Remember, it was not very long ago when air travel was a new and romantic experience. Flying was exciting. Going to a distant city was exciting. Being served lobster thermidor by beautiful gloved stewardesses was exciting. Now air travel is a challenge and a burden, and the presidents, who remember all the flying they had to do as candidates, remember the inconvenience acutely. Air Force One liberates these men from the problems of ordinary flight, something which was brought home on September 11 when George W. Bush called his father from Air Force One, and found his dad had been grounded in Milwaukee. Moreover, Air Force One is the vehicle the president travels in when he is at his most powerful–going someplace where he will embody and project American power, appearing someplace where he is welcomed as the vessel for people’s hopes and values. Air Force One reminds presidents of their power. Walsh reminds us that when FDR first flew, the presidential plane was called the “Sacred Cow.” We might be better off if we reverted to that designation.
Amid the hyperbole, Walsh does slip in some interesting bonbons. Ronald Reagan liked to wear velour sweatpants while he was flying. The elder Bush liked to wear a white jacket on which was printed the map of the world, as well as white socks and slippers that had the presidential seal on each toe. Colin Powell stretches out on the floor to nap on long trips. Perhaps oddest of all, amid the startling events of September 11, the pilot of Air Force One ordered an armed guard placed outside the cockpit. Whom did he mistrust?
Walsh reports that the Air Force currently estimates that it costs $40,000 an hour to fly the president someplace. This includes the cost of Air Force One, a fully equipped substitute, and more than 60 other support planes. One of Clinton’s trips to Asia cost $63 million. Oddly, while we’re spending all this money on these trips, we still charge the president for his meals: $4-$6 for breakfast, $6-$8 for lunch, and $8-$11 for dinner. Hey, he may be riding in a majestic symbol of America, but he’s still going to have to spring for that taco.