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Air Force One
A History of the Presidents and their Planes
By Kenneth T. Walsh
Hyperion
HC, 261 pgs. US$24.95/C$36.95
ISBN: 1-4013-0004-9

Air power

By Steven Martinovich
web posted May 19, 2003

Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and their PlanesGiven the surprising affection that Americans have for Air Force One, it's remarkable that it was once accepted wisdom that an American president should never leave the confines of the nation. Teddy Roosevelt was the first to do so in 1906, by ship and only for a few hours, and it wasn't until 1943 that Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the first president to fly in office -- limiting his flights to only three in the final years of his time in office, in stark contrast to Bill Clinton who managed to log over 1.7 million miles during his eight years. Today it's not only accepted that a president will leave the United States, but that it's also necessary.

U.S. News and World Report's chief White House correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh, who has taken more than 200 flights onboard Air Force One since 1986, explores the relationship between America's presidents and their symbol of power and prestige in Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and their Planes. From Roosevelt's propeller-driven aircraft to the technological marvel that is Bush's modified 747, Walsh traces how they've enabled presidents to make history and indeed how the planes themselves have made history.

In many ways, the airplanes the presidents have used have reflected the nation that they serve. Dwight D. Eisenhower's spartan aircraft reflected the sobriety of the 1950s and his military career while John F. Kennedy's comparatively sleek 707 -- the first to utilize the blue and white color scheme familiar to us today -- "seemed to embody modernity itself." As America's economic and military power grew, so did the sophistication of the aircraft. Today's Air Force One is a mobile White House that allows the president to conduct the nation's business from anywhere in the world with nearly the same effectiveness they would have sitting in the Oval Office.

Like the Oval Office, Air Force One has borne witness to history on numerous occasions. The most famous photo taken inside the aircraft shows Lyndon Johnson taking the oath office with a shattered Jacqueline Kennedy standing beside him just hours after Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. In the hours after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Air Force One dramatically skipped across the country until it was determined that it was safe for George W. Bush to return to Washington, D.C. It was also on that airplane that he approved the creation of the Department of Homeland Defence in response to the attacks.

How a president conducts himself on Air Force One also plays a major role in Walsh's account. Johnson's foul temper and earthy language were even more pronounced in the privacy of the plane. Gerald Ford, an unknown quantity to many Americans during his term, was loved by the crew for his everyman qualities. Ronald Reagan, who holds the distinction of never having slept during any of his flights, was respected by the crew but George H.W. Bush was loved by them because, although the public thought otherwise, of his common touch. Clinton could be brilliant or oaffish on board while the current president prefers work and exercise.

Walsh also takes some time to educate the reader about Air Force One and how she operates. As the name suggests, which it received during the Eisenhower era after air traffic controllers confused Eastern 610 with the president's Air Force 610, the aircraft is operated by the U.S. Air Force. There is no escape pod for the president as many believe. It would probably also come as a shock to many people that everybody onboard -- from the president on down -- pays for their own meals during trips. And as advanced as the aircraft's systems are, secure communications can be problematic when they're needed the most.

Walsh cites polls that suggest Americans are tremendously proud of Air Force One and what it represents to them. Reagan may have captured the essence of that pride when he once stated that seeing Air Force One while in a foreign nation was "a little bit like hearing the national anthem." That said Air Force One is a world that only a select few have been privy to. Walsh's access to the aircraft and the leaders it serves has produced an insightful look at what started out as utilitarian tool and has become, as he writes, "one of the most distinctive icons in the world."

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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