“Flying Coach To Cairo”


Jimmy Carter was at home in his study in Plains, Georgia, on October 6, 1981, when the call came in a little after daybreak. A reporter was on the line asking for his response to the attempted assassination of Anwar Sadat. The Egyptian president had been reviewing a military parade in Cairo when men in uniforms sprayed the crowd with bullets and hand grenades. Carter, shocked, asked for details. After being assured that Sadat had sustained only minor injuries, he gave the reporter a statement calling his friend Sadat a good and great man and condemning terrorism. He then phoned the U.S. ambassador in Cairo, who confirmed the report and told him that according to information from Egypt’s minister of defense, Sadat would survive the attack. Watching CNN’s coverage of the story with his wife, Rosalynn, on a small television in the study, he called Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister, with whom Carter, when President, had worked to forge the Camp David Accords with Sadat, bringing closer the long-elusive hope of peace between Israel and Egypt. Carter and Begin both expressed relief that Sadat’s life had been spared. Sadat had been much on Carter’s mind; that same morning, before the call came through, he had been reading through his White House diaries on the Camp David agreements in research for the presidential memoir he was writing.

In Washington, President Ronald Reagan got the same news from his Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, who called at 7:20 a.m., after hearing from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Reagan sent a cable to Sadat offering his prayers and support. Then, just after 9:00 a.m., he received an update on the attack from Richard Allen, his national security adviser. “Good Lord,” Reagan said softly several times as Allen briefed him. Sadat’s fate was now in question. By 11:15 a.m., word had come to the White House Situation Room that Sadat was dead, and soon after, the news broke across the airwaves. The assassins, religious fundamentalists, had killed 11 people and wounded 40 others before being apprehended. Sadat had stood defiantly in the face of their charge before being cut down by bullets and shrapnel fragments.

Back in Plains, Carter wept as he heard the news. He felt, he said, as though his brother had died.

Sadat’s funeral left the White House in a diplomatic quandary. Earlier in the year, just 69 days into his Presidency, the bullets of a would-be assassin had struck President Reagan. Cautious officials persuaded him and Vice President George H. W. Bush that the possibility of further violence made it too dangerous for either to go to Egypt just then. But sending administration officials of lesser rank to the funeral of a head of state, particularly one as important to the United States as Sadat, would be an egregious breach of protocol. It was Alexander Haig who came up with a solution that would allow the United States to save face: He would lead a delegation of all the living former Presidents—Carter, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon—a triumvirate he dubbed “the Presidential hat-trick.” Reagan liked the idea, and calls went out to the “formers” from the State Department, asking them to attend the funeral on behalf of the President.

Carter had been planning to go but, put off by what he saw as Reagan’s cowardice in not making the trip, balked at joining the delegation. Having relinquished the Presidency just nine months earlier, Carter had left Washington wounded by defeat at the hands of Reagan, whom, as Carter’s biographer Douglas Brinkley put it, he saw as “immoral to the core.” Like many of his predecessors, he had little idea what he would do after the Presidency and was having difficulty adjusting to private life once voters had given him a pink slip. He went home to Plains, Georgia, spiritually drained and, he found out shortly before leaving office, financially bankrupt. The assassination of his closest friend among foreign leaders was another blow. He and Mrs. Carter had made up their minds to attend the funeral as personal friends of the Sadats when Sadat’s widow, Jihan, invited them to stay at her home. Carter wanted nothing to do with the proposed delegation, but after several days and “an avalanche of pressure” from friends and aides, including an argument with his staff, he was compelled to accept, though not at all happily.

Nixon, who had also planned to attend the funeral, accepted readily. After years of self-imposed exile in the wake of his resignation in 1974, he was in the initial stages of rebuilding his image. The Reagan Presidency presented an opening for him to work his way back into the political mainstream. Reagan held Nixon in high regard despite the taint of Watergate and regularly called on him for advice. When discussing the members of the delegation with Haig, Reagan was wholly supportive of Nixon’s joining Ford and Carter. Representing the United States at the Sadat funeral would show the world that Nixon was indeed a legitimate former President, and it would be one more step in his long road to rehabilitation.

Ford, on the other hand, despite his admiration for Sadat, had not planned to attend the proceedings, and his family had urged him not to accept the request to join the delegation. They had seen him survive two assassination attempts within a month of each other while he was in office and were not eager to have him back in harm’s way. But Ford was nothing if not loyal to his country, and the President was asking. He agreed to join the others.

Carter wept as he heard the news about Sadat.