“Flying Coach To Cairo”

PrintPrintEmailEmail He felt, he said, as though his brother had died.

The trip was bound to be awkward for the thirty-seventh, thirty-eighth, and thirty-ninth Presidents. Ford’s relationships with both his immediate predecessor and successor were strained. Not only had Nixon lied to him (and, of course, the country) about his involvement in Watergate when Ford was Vice President, but he had been a nuisance while Ford was President. Nixon had refused to offer a full apology for Watergate upon accepting Ford’s pardon, a response that might have mitigated the political fallout for Ford, and doggedly fought for possession of his presidential papers, which the government wanted in its hands as evidence in possible legal proceedings. Moreover, Nixon hadn’t done Ford any favor by making a much-publicized trip to China, putting himself back in the headlines and reminding voters of the pardon just as Ford was battling Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination in the 1976 New Hampshire primary. Now, when Ford was invited to parties, aides scoured the list of guests to make sure that Nixon wouldn’t be among them. Ford’s relationship with Carter was no better. The bitter, sometimes hostile, 1976 presidential campaign left the two men disaffected, despite Ford’s graciousness in defeat and Carter’s inaugural address acknowledgment of all his predecessor had done “to heal our land.” While President, Carter called Ford on four or five occasions to consult on matters of state, and he was particularly grateful for Ford’s support of the Panama Canal Treaties. Ford, in turn, had actively lobbied Carter to accept the Helsinki Accords that he, Ford, had negotiated with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. Carter supported the agreement, keeping intact an important part of Ford’s legacy. Still, they remained cool toward each other. Ford simply didn’t like Carter, and Carter summed up their relationship as “oil and water.” As for Carter and Nixon, they barely knew each other but nonetheless shared a vague mutual antipathy.

Two days after Sadat’s assassination, three Air Force jets— two Jet-Stars and a C-9 Transport—touched down simultaneously at Andrews Air Force Base, in Maryland, each carrying a former President. As the three men left their planes and walked toward Marine One , the presidential helicopter that would carry them to the White House to meet with Reagan before their trip to Egypt, a question of protocol arose: Who should be the first to board? Carter was impressed when Nixon said that the man who left office most recently was the most senior member of the delegation. He waited as Carter boarded, followed by Mrs. Carter and Ford. But despite Nixon’s gesture, there was a thick tension among the passengers. Before touching down on the South Lawn, Ford made an attempt to ease the situation. “Look,” he said, “for the trip, at least, why don’t we make it just Dick, Jimmy, and Jerry?” They all agreed.

The gathering at the White House was a first. Never before had four Presidents been in the Executive mansion at one time. The normally cheery Reagan looked unusually somber when he met his three predecessors, though all managed to smile while a White House photographer captured the historic moment as they stood side by side. Carter, the most visibly uncomfortable, thought those photographs were the only reason Reagan had called them to the White House in the first place.

After a brief discussion of the coming trip, Reagan, lifting his coffee cup, toasted his predecessors: “Ordinarily, I would wish you happy landing, but you’re all Navy men, so I wish you bon voyage.” Then the President escorted them to the South Lawn, where Marine One stood waiting to take them back to Andrews to begin the first leg of their 12-hour journey. Before boarding, they flanked Reagan as he paid tribute to the man who had brought them all together. “There are moments in history,” he told the world, “when the martyrdom of a single life can symbolize all that is wrong with an age and all that is right with humanity. Anwar Sadat, a man of peace in a time of violence, understood his age. In his final moments, as he had in all his days, he stood in defiance of the enemies of peace, the enemies of humanity. The meaning of his life and the cause for which he stood will endure and triumph.”

As the presidential helicopter rose from the White House grounds, Nixon stared at the place they all had called home, though not as long as any of them would have wished. “I kind of like that house down there.” He smiled at his peers. “Don’t you?”

Right after the assassination attempt on Reagan, Alexander Haig famously proclaimed, “I’m in charge here,” despite the fact that Vice President Bush was alive and well and that even if he hadn’t been, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill would have been in charge. Haig proved no less officious as the leader of this delegation. The former Presidents boarded the jet that had served all of them as Air Force One and was now employed as SAM 26000, a backup for the newer, sleeker Air Force One used by Reagan. On this trip, though, Haig took over the spacious forward cabin they had all enjoyed as President, and his staff occupied the neighboring one, which had formerly served as the private quarters for the First Ladies. Ford, Carter, and Nixon were relegated to the after section, which had once been used by the their staffs, unceremoniously “thrown in the passengers’ seats,” Mrs. Carter laughingly recalled. They were flying coach to the Middle East.

Initially they sat at two tables, each seating four, like patrons in the booths of a diner.