If you are a regional reporter, like me, the only way you get inside one of these airplanes is when a member of your state’s congressional delegation gets bumped up to the president’s Cabinet.
They are the big blue-and-white birds with an American flag painted on the tail, and side lettering proclaiming “United States of America.” The press has dubbed them “Air Force One.” If you saw Harrison Ford’s movie of the same name last summer, you know what I’m talking about.
You can fight a nuclear war from the cabin of these planes. They are one of the most visible symbols of American world leadership when they sit on the tarmac at foreign airports, and a compelling political statement for the incumbent president on all his domestic trips.
Actually, there are four principal aircraft that serve the chief executive and his Cabinet. All are based at Andrews Air Force Base on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The two newest are converted Boeing 747s which are identified by the tail numbers 28000 and 29000. The oldest are Boeing 707s with tail numbers 26000 and 27000.
The 26000 was John Kennedy’s Air Force One. It brought his body beck from Dallas in 1963 and will be taken out of service next year for display at the Smithsonian aviation museum. I went around the world with then-Secretary of State Ed Muskie on the 26000. The 27000 was Richard Nixon’s and Jimmy Carter’s White House plane. That’s the one that took Defense Secretary Bill Cohen and me to Bosnia last month for a Christmas visit with U.S. peacekeeping personnel.
Most of the stuff about “Air Force One,” the movie, is Hollywood fiction, according to Marine Gen. Jim Jones, who is Cohen’s military adviser. The 747s can be refueled in midair, he said. For security reasons, Jones could not disclose whether the president’s plane is armed with an air-to-air missile defense system. However, there is no “escape pod” to jettison Clinton to earth by parachute as displayed in the movie, Jones said.
Cohen’s Christmas press contingent was just me, a feature writer from Parade Magazine and a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch. The secretary and his wife, Janet Langhart, dropped by our section from time to time for small talk. We also did a sit-down interview in Cohen’s suite.
Little sessions of this sort can be dangerous. The late Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz called a reporter a “little Jap” during one in-flight give-and-take. That ended Butz’s career. Ronald Reagan, making small talk with reporters on Air Force One, observed that trees produce carbon dioxide, which is a major component of air pollution. Cartoonists and editorial writers had a field day ridiculing the Gipper for trying to blame smog on “Killer Trees.”
You have to feel sorry for Al Gore. During an in-flight chatfest with reporters Gore claimed that novelist Eric Segal, a Harvard buddy, used him and wife Tipper as the real-life model for “Love Story,” Segal’s tale of two student star-crossed lovers named Oliver and Jenny. Gore’s college roommate, Tommy Lee Jones, actually played fictional Oliver Barrett’s roommate in the movie.
Alas, Segal threw cold water on Gore’s bit of self-promotion, adding definition to the media sketch of the vice president as a cardboard-stiff public figure who can’t figure out how to get out from under Clinton’s giant shadow.
“Tell me about your big surprise birthday party,” said I to Cohen, trying to loosen things up.
“You’re getting right down to the substance of things,” he replied, with a faint scornful edge to his voice.
“I used up my substance over the weekend,” I said, which was a veiled retort to Cohen’s cell phone call from Bangor the previous Saturday telling me how thrilled he was to read my column detailing how James Forrestal, the first secretary of defense, was driven insane by the job and committed suicide. Was I implying, Cohen asked, that his own head was not tightly screwed on?
Such is the clever repartee that takes place between Cohen and myself in place of serious journalism. The first time I interviewed then-Rep. Cohen in his less-than-grand office in the Cannon House Office building, a large cockroach walked across the desk as I was setting up my tape recorder.
“Looks like you’ve got a bug problem,” said I, remembering a recent story about Cannon being overrun by rats and other vermin.
“He probably came in here with you,” Cohen responded, in mock, I think, seriousness.
Yeah, I know that Bosnia is a big story and the feminists already are circling the Pentagon to see which way Cohen will go on the issue of separate or integrated training for military recruits. A new commission recently recommended doing boot camp like the Marines, who put men and women through basic training in separate units. Sen. Olympia Snowe, among others, thinks that would be a step back for women in the military.
A “tough call,” was all that Cohen would say.
The birthday party thing was interesting because Cohen is a romantic-type guy. He writes poetry and got married on Valentine’s Day. The night before our flight Mr. Pentagon Chief launched a major covert operation to flimflam wife Janet into attending a surprise bash with the leading lights of Washington. Everybody but the Clintons was there.
I never saw it coming, Langhart confessed.
Not Oliver and Jenny, but a nice holiday season story, nevertheless. — WASHINGTON John Day’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org