“Flying Coach To Cairo”

PrintPrintEmailEmail Haig, as it turned out, knew nothing about it, nor did the White House. Eventually Haig made his way back toward the rear of the plane to see if Kissinger had learned of Nixon’s plans. No, Kissinger told him, but he would discreetly ask Nixon about it. When he did, Nixon threw up his hands in a gesture of uncertainty. Invitations had been extended, he said, but nothing was definite. It was vintage Nixon. Kissinger well remembered discovering that Nixon was planning to visit China as Ford faced Reagan in the New Hampshire primary. Nixon had told Kissinger that the Chinese government had invited him just 36 hours prior to his departure. Kissinger would have none of it. “The Chinese don’t do business that way,” he assured Ford. In fact, the invitation had come two months earlier. Ford, to whom Nixon had promised to keep a low profile before the election, was furious. “It’s not the way I would have done it,” he said later. “Dick Nixon was a man who thought of himself.”

As the flight wore on and the plane neared Cairo, the bonhomie gave way to fatigue and anxiety about venturing into a politically unstable climate. Upon arriving, the three former Presidents climbed into waiting limousines, armor-plated and imported from Washington for the occasion. The first stop was their hotel in downtown Cairo, followed by an official visit with Sadat’s vice president and successor, Hosni Mubarak, who gave the men his assurance that Sadat’s policies would be his own.

The following day, slightly stiff in bulletproof vests, they attended the funeral. Along with other mourners (in accordance with Muslim tradition, all men), they gathered in a crowded pavilion before setting off on foot along a parade route that would lead to the reviewing stand where Sadat had met his death and where his widow, Jihan, waited with Susan Mubarak, the new Egyptian president’s wife, Mrs. Carter, and other female dignitaries. Ford was unsettled by the ceremony’s evident lack of coordination and organization, particularly in light of the threat of terrorism, as he and several hundred leaders representing 80 nations anxiously marched without direction through Cairo’s streets. Conspicuously absent among them were the heads of state of neighboring Arab nations. With the exception of Sudan and Somalia, all had elected to stay away because of the presence of Menachem Begin, who boldly came to pay homage to his former foe and partner in peace. Also missing was any sign of Egyptian citizens, who had been banned from the proceedings for security reasons. The streets were bizarrely silent. When the mourners reached the reviewing stand, pocked by the bullets, the ceremony came to an anticlimactic end.

Ford was unsettled by the ceremony’s lack of organization, particularly in light of the threat of terrorism.

Afterward a number of those who had been with the U.S. contingent split off from it to travel on their own to other destinations in the Middle East and Europe. Among them were Haig, who stayed on for meetings with the Egyptian leaders in Cairo, and Nixon, who did indeed go on to Saudi Arabia, before meeting with leaders in other countries across the Middle East and in North Africa. “To the dismay of some, and the delight of a few,” Time magazine reported, “Richard Nixon was back in the headlines.” His controversial past got nary a mention, and the secrecy surrounding the trip—itself controversial—was dismissed entirely by the former President himself; his mission was more important than that. “We’ve heard it for years,” he told Time ’s Hugh Sidey, “‘the cradle of civilization will be its grave.’ Well now the threat is true.” By visiting Arab leaders, he was doing what he thought right in containing that threat. And his thoughts on the world were being heard once again, as the press reported not only on his travels but on his views as well. Upon his return he would organize the thoughts he had strewn on yellow legal pads during the journey into one more in a series of memos to the State Department. Although the ghosts of Watergate continued to haunt him, Nixon gained influence throughout his remaining years and upon his death in 1994, against all odds, would be remembered less as the only President ever driven in disgrace from the White House than as a respected elder statesman.

On the return trip to the United States something altogether unexpected happened for Ford and Carter. With hours yet to spend in the air, fewer passengers on SAM 26000, and the anxiety of the trip to Cairo behind them, the awkwardness between the two slipped away. As they talked about their political experiences and interests, wives and families, a “natural affinity developed” between them, said Ford, and the beginnings of an unlikely friendship took root. Their pleasant conversation led to a discussion on “what we could do on joint projects,” Ford recalled, and before they touched down on American soil, he had agreed to act as co-chairman on several initiatives at the Carter Center, while Carter consented to co-host a conference at the Ford Library. During the flight they saw how potent their joint bipartisan voice could be. In an interview with the three members of the press accompanying them, sitting around a small table in the President’s cabin, the two men held forth on the situation in the Middle East. Speaking informally in shirtsleeves, “Jerry” and “Jimmy” agreed that the recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its grievances with Israel was paramount in achieving peace in the region. “At some point,” Ford said, “that has to happen.