“Flying Coach To Cairo”

PrintPrintEmailEmail Nixon and Ford sat across from Henry Kissinger, who had served them both as Secretary of State, and Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger. Across the aisle the Carters faced Ashraf Ghorbal, the Egyptian ambassador to the United States, and his wife. The remainder of the plane’s 52 passengers sat behind them. That eclectic bunch included Stevie Wonder; the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick; Sam Brown, a 14-year-old South Carolina boy with whom Sadat had become a pen pal; an array of lawmakers from Strom Thurmond to Jim Wright; and a three-person press pool. Stewards had placed briefing books on the seats of every member of the delegation, along with a classified report on the political dangers in Egypt in the wake of Sadat’s death.

It would be a restless flight for the former Presidents, one punctuated by the directives Haig continually sent back through the chief of protocol, Lenore Annenberg (wife of the TV Guide mogul Walter Annenberg), demanding that they adhere to a choreographed arrival that would have them mutely following Haig out onto the tarmac in Cairo, where he would speak for the delegation. “He treated us like children,” Carter said later.

After takeoff at 7:45 p.m. tension pervaded the after section of the plane as the members of the delegation were served a dinner of beef tenderloin and crab claws. Ford noticed that his two colleagues seemed especially awkward with each other. “The truth is that Nixon and Carter were sitting in a little cubbyhole in the plane in a strained atmosphere,” he said later, “and I was in the middle between them. Nixon in particular was aloof with Carter.” Ford got the clear sense that the supercilious Nixon felt he shouldn’t have been “subjected to me and Carter for [the trip] halfway around the world.” Others noticed a chill among all three former Presidents.

Alexander Haig took the big forward cabin; the Presidents were “thrown in passengers’ seats.”

But oddly, somewhere over the Atlantic, it was Nixon who made an effort to bring them together. As Ford and Carter listened, he complimented Mrs. Carter on her outfit and the color of her eyes and talked about the new book he was writing and the house he and Mrs. Nixon had just moved into in Saddle River, New Jersey. Despite herself, Mrs. Carter began warming to Nixon. Then he spoke to Ford and Carter, saying that they all had served their country well and there was no reason for residual animosity among them. “We were all a bit ill at ease, but he wasn’t,” Carter recalled recently. Eventually, as they settled into the flight, Ford, now in his shirtsleeves, and Nixon and Carter, in cardigan sweaters, huddled together several times. Their initial focus was on the fallen Egyptian leader they were on their way to mourn. They had enormous respect for Sadat, and the talk about his death led to a discussion of the mounting troubles in the Middle East and then to the administration’s proposed sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia. Each supported the sale to keep firm America’s relations with the strategically important Saudis.

As the passengers aboard SAM 26000 noticed the three men talking, they began to sense that they were witnessing something historic. Here were three very different men, who shared a dozen years of presidential leadership, coming together. Autographs were requested, pictures taken, presidential matchbooks embossed with the names of the former Chief Executives—placed on board especially for the trip—snatched up as souvenirs. The formers began loosening up and, for the moment, appeared to be enjoying themselves, buoyed, it seemed, by the excitement they were generating. Eventually their conversation shifted to the common ground they shared: writing memoirs, making the transition from the White House to private life, and raising funds to construct their presidential libraries, an onerous burden shouldered by every former Chief Executive since Herbert Hoover. Ford had already gotten through this process, which he confided was the most difficult—and unpleasant—challenge of his life, a defeated candidate with no plans to re-enter the political arena asking donors for money. The task still lay ahead for Nixon and Carter. Later, when Ford had wandered down the aisle to discuss politics with several of the congressmen on board, Carter listened intently as Nixon told stories of his days at the height of power. Soon the two men were comparing notes on China and the Washington personalities they had encountered.

Aided by a martini or two, Nixon struck a delicate balance, being friendly and accessible without seeming over-eager. When a congressman, Clement Zablocki, tried to snap a photograph of Nixon, Ford, and Carter together, Nixon said, “You don’t want my picture with them.” After assurances to the contrary, he slipped his arms around them and smiled broadly as the camera clicked. Nixon, Carter said later, “made a great hit” with his courtesy, eloquence, and charm. He had a kind word for anyone who approached him. After his fall from power seven long years before, the thirty-seventh President was back where it counted and he took nothing for granted. Kissinger, for one, was glad to see his sometime boss applying the right touch. But he would soon discover this was still the Nixon of old, with an instinct for secrecy and subterfuge.

Just before boarding the flight, Haig had received a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, asking about giving a dinner for Nixon. The American diplomats had learned he planned to visit there after the funeral, but they didn’t get this information from the State Department.