As a corrective for the struggles of American diplomacy, I am surprised that no one has proposed mothballing Air Force One. The jet of state is almost the perfect symbol of modern presidents, who fly around the world as if on a magic carpet, but come home with little more than passport stamps. In recent months, President Obama has flown to Indonesia, India, South Korea, Japan, Portugal, Iraq, and Hawaii, but, other than for his Christmas vacation, the reasons for any of these trips are a blur.
The hope is that presidential frequent flyer miles can be redeemed for peace, prosperity, and global harmony. Instead, we seem to have traded the miles for undeclared wars, ballooning national debt, and diplomatic unease. Do the WikiLeaks sing songs of success?
Not every president has felt the need to adopt the persona of an international courier. Until Teddy Roosevelt visited the Panama Canal, no sitting president ever left the country. (It just wasn’t “done.”) The designation “Air Force One” dates to the Eisenhower administration. In the last thirty years of his life, Thomas Jefferson never visited a northern city. When he traveled in Europe, it was with one servant and his notebooks. But some presidents were more eager to wander.
During his entire lifetime Abraham Lincoln never left the United States, although twice as a young man he journeyed down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, from Kentucky to New Orleans — the future president as Huckleberry Finn.
To negotiate the Peace of Paris after World War I, Woodrow Wilson spent almost six months in France, where he was greeted by rapturous crowds. On location, he only muddled the disastrous peace at Versailles. (“Making the Hun pay...”) On his return to the U.S., however, he failed to persuade the Senate to ratify the treaty.
Other presidents have traveled to escape the clouds of scandal. With his popularity ebbing, Warren Harding went on a tour of the Pacific Northwest (avoiding Teapot Dome, Wyoming), and Richard Nixon clogged the streets of Egypt and Romania during the depths of the Watergate scandal.
John F. Kennedy, before his election, traveled like a foreign correspondent. In 1951 he journeyed, often by car, for twelve weeks, first from England to Yugoslavia, and later from Israel to Pakistan, India, Indochina, and Korea.
Without a doubt, FDR was the most courageous presidential traveler. He spent countless days at sea, crossing the Atlantic during World War II, when there was the high chance of a U-boat attack. Unable to walk, Roosevelt was often winched from one rocking destroyer to another, in the middle of the rough ocean. He persevered to attend conferences in Casablanca, Argentina, Tehran, Malta, and Cairo.
Although Harry Truman is remembered for giving entrenched interests “hell” off the rear platform of a private railroad car, what he liked most were road trips. Matthew Algeo’s Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure is an account of how, after his presidency ended, Harry loaded Bess into the family Chrysler and drove her from Independence, Missouri, to New York and Washington, DC. They stayed in motels along the way, and he paid for his own gas.
George W. Bush always looked like a reluctant traveler, only comfortable shuttling to Camp David or his ranch in Texas. By contrast, Teddy Roosevelt was not just a traveler, but an explorer. After his presidency he embarked on epic journeys across Africa and South America, nearly killing himself up the Amazon River.
How does Barack Obama fare as a traveler? I read somewhere that he is gracious in his encounters with troops stationed abroad, and that speaks well for his compassion. On his diplomatic missions, though, he seems to travel in circles, and to be impatient with a world not always so adoring.
In November 2010, he flew from Washington to India, and then to summit meetings in South Korea (which went nowhere). No sooner was he back in Washington than he flew to Lisbon for a NATO summit. A week later he went back to Asia, in the dead of night, this time to Afghanistan. He spent all of four hours there on the ground. Why fly thirteen hours to Afghanistan and miss seeing President Karzai, only to head directly back to Washington?
Couldn’t his schedulers have doubled up on some of these excursions? After all, it costs $181,000 an hour to fly Air Force One, and millions more for the cavalcade.
As an international traveler, Obama strikes me as being like many American executives who zip in and out of Europe as though it were St. Louis, and who always need to be back in Washington by Friday afternoon. Obama has made more foreign trips, for his time in office, than any other president. To what end?
In 2009, Obama went twice to Copenhagen, in the space of about ninety days, first to lobby for Chicago’s chances at Olympic swag, and then to lecture the developing world about carbon emissions. (This from someone who travels with an entourage of about seven hundred, chaser jets, and a motorcade caravan worthy of a sheikh.)
On his first trip to Copenhagen (for less than a day), the Olympic committee was indifferent to the presidential fly-by, which no doubt disappointed the Daley brothers, who were hoping for some Olympic-sized contracts in Chicago. Some weeks later at the climate change conference, an obviously jet-lagged Obama burst in on the Chinese, jawboned for a while (in the manner of Basil Fawlty), and went back to the airport with little to show for the carbon emitted.
If global warming is such an important issue, maybe he could have stayed the weekend in Copenhagen? A week earlier he had flown in and out of Oslo. He was there for twenty-six hours, to collect the Nobel Prize, but in his rush he snubbed the Norwegian king.
Last November, when the president went to India for three days, he took with him six armored cars and about forty planes, not to mention a naval fleet stationed off Mumbai. That’s along with the four chefs, food tasters, helicopter pilots, schedulers, stewards, generals, spin doctors, secret service officers, fifteen dogs, and Washington officials that numbered in the hundreds. The travel costs were estimated at $200 million. You tell me what was accomplished. Maybe he needed the miles to get to Hawaii?
Photo by http2007 Thierry of Air Force One at the Prima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona.
Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical essays. He is also editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine. He lives in Switzerland and travels under the motto that, “A good hotel is never good enough, but a bad hotel is a joy forever.”