Air Force One Peacemaker Among Presidents

Obama, Bush and two former first ladies traveling to South Africa together.

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President Barack Obama speaks as former President Bill Clinton and former President George W. Bush listen in the Rose Garden of the White House Jan.16, 2010 in Washington, D.C.
A long flight to South Africa aboard Air Force One could provide bonding time for President Obama and former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the latter of whom will join the trip later.

Sometimes the special habitat of Air Force One is the perfect setting for making history or bridging differences. It's quite possible that the use of the aircraft by President Obama and former President George W. Bush to attend the funeral of South African leader Nelson Mandela this week will have a similar positive effect.

In my book "Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes," I describe several examples of the comity that Air Force One can breed. That's because extended periods of unavoidable proximity can forge unique bonds among the world's most powerful and famous people.

[READ: Obama, Bush, Clinton Fly to South Africa to Honor Mandela]

 

En route to Johannesburg Monday, Obama and his wife Michelle met with Bush and his wife Laura, along with former first lady and ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a conference room aboard Air Force One. "It's a unique experience obviously," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on the plane. "And I think they all are remembering their different interactions with Nelson Mandela and his family." Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton will join the trip later.

This could be the start of a more special relationship among the high-level travelers. It's happened before, exemplified by the friendship that blossomed between Carter and former President Gerald Ford while aboard Air Force One in October 1981. Newly inaugurated President Ronald Reagan asked Carter, Ford and former President Richard Nixon to represent him at the funeral of assassinated Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat in Cairo. The trip aboard Air Force One was awkward at the start, but after Nixon left the trip to conduct some private business in the Middle East, Ford and Carter, who ran against each other in 1976, were left to travel home together.

They sat for 18 hours in a small conference room and discovered how much they had in common. They talked about their families, the difficulty of raising money to build their presidential libraries, the Middle East, and U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. By the end of the trip, both Carter and Ford said they had become close friends.

Another moment of comity occurred en route to the funeral of King Hussein of Jordan in February 1999, when the incumbent president, Clinton, hosted three of his predecessors on the plane--George H.W. Bush, Carter and Ford.

[PHOTOS: The Life of Nelson Mandela]

While Clinton occupied the presidential suite, Bush, Carter and Ford , all wearing casual clothes, joined White House National Security Adviser Sandy Berger in the senior-staff compartment for the eight-hour flight from Washington to Amman. Eventually, Clinton appeared in the compartment and remained there for two hours, talking about the possibility of peace in the Middle East, evaluating the region's leaders, and discussing the situation in Russia and Kosovo. At one point, Berger offered Clinton his chair, but the president declined and sat on a small ledge bordering the room.

The four presidents were true to form. Clinton was the center of attention, displaying his breadth of knowledge about the Middle East and other topics. Ford interrupted frequently to pose straightforward questions about what was going on in the region. Carter, ever the detail man, also interrupted occasionally to discuss his dealings with leaders in the Middle East and chat about the decisions he made regarding the area. Bush didn't say a word for the two hours but listened carefully. Afterward, Bush associates said he didn't want to meddle and didn't want to appear too deferential to Clinton, who had defeated him for the White House in 1992. But when Clinton left the room, Bush told Berger, "He is a smart guy." 

Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.

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