Air Force One

A History of the Presidents and Their Planes


By Kenneth T. Walsh

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From the award-winning chief White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report comes the definitive history of Air Force One.

From FDR’s prop-driven Pan Am to the glimmering blue and white jumbo 747 on which George W. Bush travels, the president’s plane has captured the public’s awe and imagination, and is recognized around the world as a symbol of American power. In this unique book, Kenneth Walsh looks at the decisions that our last 12 presidents made on the plane; the personality traits and peccadilloes they revealed when their guard was down; and the way they each established a distinctive mood aboard that was a reflection of their times, as well as their individual personalities.

Based on interviews with four living presidents, scores of past and present White House officials, and staff and crew members of Air Force One, Walsh’s book reveals countless fascinating stories of life aboard the “flying White House.” It also features descriptions of the food, the decor, the bedrooms, the medical clinic, and much more–as well as remarkable photos of the planes (inside and out) and the presidents.



A History of the Presidents and Their Planes

Chief White House Correspondent
U.S. News & World Report

For Barclay
and Gloria


Starting with Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency in 1901, the private lives of presidents became public property. TR cleverly used his large family to create unprecedented connections between the public and the First Family. In recent years, however, the rise of an irreverent press corps revealing presidential secrets has made private White House matters less an opportunity for political gains—as they generally remained from TR to Kennedy—than a struggle between presidential image makers and “gotcha” journalism.

As Kenneth T. Walsh makes clear in this impressive history of Air Force One, the last bastion of presidential privacy for chief executives from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush has been the planes carrying them around the country and the world in search of political gains, relaxation, national security, and peace. Although each of the eleven presidents since FDR, who have logged millions of miles in the air, gave varying degrees of access to the press traveling with them, each accurately assumed that journalists invited into the inner sanctum of Air Force One would be respectful of presidential privacy. The plane was a kind of sanctuary from journalistic probing into the intimate detail of a president’s life, sordid or otherwise.

The cloistered environment of Air Force One has given presidents the freedom to be more spontaneous than in any other public setting. During long wartime flights to meet Churchill and Stalin, Walsh observes, FDR “provided a glimpse into … [his] gregarious personality and his everyday challenges as a polio victim.” Harry Truman aboard the “Sacred Cow,” the plane he inherited from Roosevelt, faithfully “reflected his feisty personality and his down-to-earth approach to life,” Walsh writes. Reflecting the style of the fifties, Eisenhower almost always traveled in a jacket and tie, which he rarely loosened. The unadorned state of the plane, “a simple, gray, utilitarian military-style aircraft … embodied the no-nonsense spirit of the cold war.”

Kennedy’s plane, like the man, “seemed to embody modernity itself.” On board, he “spent hours swapping political stories, sharing gossip, talking about women, smoking cigars, and enjoying a few drinks.” Lyndon Johnson was, by turns, more overtly “earthy, profane, selfish, devious, or rude, and then polite, considerate, affectionate, and downright charming” than he was at the White House or before guests at his Texas ranch. On Air Force One, Richard Nixon gave full voice to his affinity for both decisiveness and vacillation, finalizing major policy choices while in flight and descending into moods of self-doubt and personal pique. Ford, less guarded and political during flying trips, gave expression to his natural gregariousness and decency, habitually “wandering through the plane, chatting with staff members and guests.” Jimmy Carter, an introverted, obsessive worker and micromanager, showed himself during plane trips to be a loner who often shut himself off from staff and reporters.

Reagan impressed everyone aboard Air Force One as more introspective and self-contained than he was on the campaign trail, at the White House, or at overseas conferences. In the confines of the plane, George H. W. Bush felt free to dress down in “a bizarre white jacket … white socks and slippers with the presidential seal on each toe.” He also could cast aside “his own non-confrontational nature and discipline errant aides there.” Bill Clinton “reflected all his positives and negatives,” alternating “frenetic activity with periods of wasted time,” working feverishly hard and holding all-night bull sessions. His traits of “brilliance, curiosity, and a willingness to make excuses for himself were on constant display during his airborne adventures.” As for George W. Bush, he shows himself “to be more of an average Joe than most presidents like to admit.” He reads little, displays small interest in the day’s news, and manages feelings of restlessness at being confined on long plane trips he doesn’t especially like by jogging on a treadmill.

Ken Walsh’s book is not only a fascinating look into presidential behavior aboard Air Force One but also a thoughtful discussion of what the plane stands for in American and international politics. The Oval Office has become familiar to millions of Americans through photographs, television, and replicas in presidential libraries, but presidential planes remain largely unknown. Except for the famous still photograph of Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One after Kennedy’s assassination, the aircraft’s décor and facilities remain little glimpsed by most Americans. Consequently, the plane has taken on mythic proportions that presidents have used to their advantage. According to a poll Walsh cites, two-thirds of Americans see the plane as “a symbol of the country and a reminder of history.” Harry Truman “invented the use of the president’s plane as a modern spectacle,” Walsh writes, with thousands of Americans coming to airports to watch the president’s arrival. Kennedy ordered that “United States of America” be painted “in huge, bold letters” on the plane’s fuselage, making the aircraft a symbol of the presidency and the nation. Reagan used Air Force One as “a fabulous prop,” instituting “The Walk, a carefully choreographed, dignified march [by himself] from his limousine or helicopter up the stairs and into the magnificent blue and white 707.”

Carter, Reagan, and Bush 41 were all mindful of Air Force One’s power as an American symbol. Carter saw “within the eyes and the demeanor of those who welcomed us that they sensed that Air Force One at that moment was the United States of America.” When he arrived back at the airport in a foreign city, Reagan recalled, “it’s a little bit like hearing the national anthem and you swell a little with pride.” The senior Bush remembered that “when you taxi up in our country or in some other country, there is great emotion… . It is the mobile symbol of the presidency and the country.”

Walsh’s book demonstrates that in the sixty years presidents have traveled by air, Air Force One has become an integral but all too neglected part of America’s presidential history. His welcome history of the presidents and their planes will fill this gap and expand our understanding of the men and their administrations.

Robert Dallek
Washington, D.C.
October 2002

I wish they had formed us like birds of the air, able to fly where we please. I would have exchanged for this many of the boasted preeminencies of man.

third president of the United States
Letter to Maria Cosway, Paris, December 24, 1786



  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 unusual 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.”

Often a president’s public persona is at odds with his private self. Once the president steps aboard and the big blue door slams shut, the veneer drops. Johnson, for example, may have been a great humanitarian in his public policies, but he was abusive to his subordinates and vulgar in the extreme when aboard the plane. Jimmy Carter also loved people in the abstract, but was aloof and sometimes inconsiderate to those around him.

Clinton had so many personas, both public and private, that it was impossible to tell which one would show up, the intellectual or the sports nut, the serious policy maker or everyone’s pal. And as the most-traveled president in history, he conducted much of his business from his airborne White House. On the other end of the spectrum, Nixon was much the same person on and off the plane, a humorless workaholic and a solitary brooder who saw conspiracies everywhere.

Confirming his reputation, Reagan was just as disengaged from the details of governing in private as he was in public, although he never lost sight of his conservative ideals. And today, George W. Bush shows a similar conservative streak combined with a willingness to delegate large amounts of responsibility. Finally, Bush benefits from a Reagan-like affability that never disappears and a pervasive optimism.

A CLOSE LOOK at the flying presidents shows the remarkable diversity of America’s leadership pool. They were all white men, of course, but if these chief executives are a guide, surely our democracy has no ruling class.

What other conclusion can one draw in a nation that turns for leadership to an eloquent Brahmin bred for power like FDR, then elects a failed haberdasher with a penchant for plain speaking and bold decision making like Harry Truman?

Next in line was a former general out of Kansas, Dwight Eisenhower, who had little in common with either of his immediate predecessors but provided an anchor of steadiness to national life. He was followed by a rich, telegenic career politician—and, for the first time, a Catholic—named John F. Kennedy who brought charisma, energy, and charm to the White House.

Then came a swaggering son of Texas, Lyndon Johnson, who was insecure about his ability to live up to the martyred Kennedy’s legend but had big ideas about creating a Great Society.

Forced not to run again by an unpopular war, Johnson gave way to the brilliant but similarly insecure Nixon, another career politician with roots in California’s middle class whose dark side led to the Watergate scandal and his resignation.

Gerald Ford, a former Michigan congressman who as vice president took office after Nixon resigned, was one of the most decent souls ever to serve. But he was defeated by a peanut farmer and ex-governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, who, like his two predecessors, lost the country’s faith.

Ronald Reagan, an actor out of Hollywood, proved to be one of the twentieth century’s most popular and influential presidents, a man who never forgot his Middle American background. Yet he passed his mantle to George H. W. Bush, another Brahmin with a penchant for public service, who was rejected after one term.

Bill Clinton, Southern-born son of the lower middle class, was the most gifted politician of his generation but one of the most self-indulgent of men. He took power from Bush by steering close to public opinion. But a dynasty was born when George W. Bush, of Yale, Harvard Business School, and Midland, Texas—the son of the former president—won the White House in 2000 after an extremely close election that was decided by a 5 to 4 vote in the Supreme Court.

Whatever their roots, all these men found that the presidential aircraft was one of the few places where they could feel a sense of privacy and create a unique atmosphere that reflected each one’s personality, all reinforced by a staff that was always eager to please. “To the extent the plane is a traveling court, it is all oriented toward making sure the president has what he needs, and we were all there in that sense to serve the court,” says Mark Penn, who was Clinton’s pollster and a senior White House adviser.

Most newly elected presidents step aboard Air Force One and can’t believe their good fortune. After spending a year or two bouncing around the country on small, leased aircraft as they seek the office, they tend to be overjoyed at the royal treatment they receive on their very own jet. Yet within a short time, they start thinking that they deserve such treatment. This can be a danger because it can inflate their already mammoth egos and insulate them from real life.

• • •

THE PLANE HAS BEEN the venue for a wide range of behaviors, from the silly to the profound, fleshing out the human side of the presidency. There were Reagan’s little-known practical jokes, and George W. Bush’s bold decisions following the terrorist attacks on September 11. There were moments of high emotion, such as Clinton’s moving tribute to Yitzhak Rabin that he delivered en route to the fallen Israeli leader’s funeral, and whimsy, as in George Herbert Walker Bush’s banning broccoli from the plane in 1989. The plane has been the perfect place for heavy-handed lobbying to pass the president’s programs, a favorite technique of Johnson’s. And it has served as a political reward, a specialty of Clinton, who gave scores of big donors rides on Air Force One during his eight years in power.

“I think you get a relatively complete picture of the president on Air Force One, especially on a long trip,” says Andrew Card, White House chief of staff for George W. Bush, “because he does find time to eat, sleep, and be merry on the plane in addition to doing the job as president… . We don’t get to see him sleep or eat very often or be merry very often in the Oval Office.” Leon Panetta, White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, agrees. “Every Air Force One reflects the personality of the president. There’s no question that it’s as close as it gets to a family situation.”

Air Force One has become, more than anywhere else, the place where a president can unwind immediately after a crisis, a high-pressure meeting, or a political showdown. He can kick back, have a drink or two, and relax with close advisers. “I rarely had that much unimpeded free time when I [was] not on the plane,” Clinton said.

Often it is en route back home or to a vacation when a president’s real personality and character clearly come into play, and where he can vent his innermost feelings. “There’s something about the power and the majesty of that airplane that really reinforces to the presidents themselves that they are in charge,” says Doug Sosnik, a former senior adviser to President Clinton who traveled frequently with him.

This dynamic was clear, for example, when President Kennedy traveled from Vienna to London after his confrontation with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at their first summit meeting. “He had been through a trial by fire,” says presidential historian Robert Dallek, who has written extensively about the Kennedy era. “Now he’s in a little confined area on the airplane, he’s with his friends, and he unburdens himself.” As this book describes in Chapter Four, Kennedy’s soul-searching monologue with aide Kenneth O’Donnell on that flight was one of the most revealing conversations of his presidency.

Air Force One


On Sale
May 14, 2003
Page Count
288 pages
Hachette Books

Kenneth T. Walsh

About the Author

Kenneth T. Walsh has covered the White House since 1986 and has won the two most prestigious honors for reporting on the presidency. He is also the former president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. The author of two books, Ronald Reagan and Feeding the Beast, he 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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