- Historic Sites
George Washington wouldn't believe it
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
As with virtually all other expenses of the office, early Presidents were expected to provide their own transportation. After Congress rebuked John Adams for purchasing seven horses and two carriages with government money earmarked for furniture, no President until William Howard Taft received transportation funds. A number of nineteenth-century Presidents accepted gift carriages from prominent businessmen to offset expenses. Occasionally saddle horses were made available by the Army, and by the 1880’s stablemen and grooms were carried on the public payroll, but all feed and veterinary costs were borne by the President.
In 1909 Taft was given $12,000 for the purchase of four automobiles, which he bought at discount prices in return for permitting the automobile companies to advertise that their vehicles were used by the Chief Executive. In 1915 the government first provided a Presidential yacht, The Mayflower , for Wilson’s pleasure, and every President since has had access to one or more vessels.
After 1860 virtually every President had a free pass for use on the nation’s railroads. At the end of the century, when security requirements made a special train necessary, the President was required to pay for the service. In 1925 the parsimonious Coolidge hit on the idea of using only a special car attached to a regularly scheduled train. His bill was thus reduced to a small rental sum “plus all fares normally received from the car’s occupants.” Coolidge got around the last provision by selling the available space to newsmen and Secret Service agents.
During World War n the railroads gave Franklin Roosevelt the Ferdinand Magellan —a railroad car as big as any engine then in use. It had a concrete and steel base, three inches of armor plate, and bulletproof windows. Despite the gift, however, Mr. Roosevelt, and later Harry Truman, continued to pay a service fee each time the car was used.
The most conspicuous Presidential perquisite is among the most recent. Beginning in 1944, when the Sacred Cow, a converted C-54, became Franklin Roosevelt’s personal plane, the President’s air fleet has grown rapidly in size and has become his primary means of transport. A handpicked Air Force unit, the 89th Military Airlift Wing, is permanently based at Andrews Air Force Base to provide what it describes as “incomparable quality airlift for the President.” In addition it provides air transport for the Vice President, the Cabinet, high-ranking government personnel, and foreign dignitaries. In recent years the 89th Wing has averaged upward of seven thousand flights annually.
The cost of maintaining this air unit is obviously enormous, but the exact figures are unknown, and the Air Force has steadfastly refused to disclose them. It has been estimated, however, that a typical round-trip flight to the Western White House in San Clemente, California, costs at least $46,000. Mr. Nixon made four such flights in 1973, plus one other on a commercial jet; in the same year he made thirteen flights to Key Biscayne, Florida, and back.
Under current regulations a minimum of six planes are in the air when the President flies. These include a communications support plane and a back-up 707 that always accompany Air Force One and one or more Jetstars to provide courier service back to Washington. At least two—and usually three—helicopters precede or follow the President to his destination to provide local transportation in California or Florida.
Unlike earlier Presidents, Mr. Nixon has never used any of the smaller planes assigned to the 8gth Wing. He has, however, frequently flown by helicopter to Camp David (thirty-six times in 1973). He has increased the number of 707’s to five (two more than the number available to Lyndon Johnson), and he has completely refitted and repainted four of them at least twice each in five years. In 1973 he ordered a new 707 for $10 million. That figure does not reflect the cost of additional special equipment that is always added to a Presidential plane. Nor does it include the additional $280,000 required to redesign the interior of the plane after delivery when Mrs. Nixon complained about the location of her sleeping quarters.
Mr. Nixon is apparently the first President to give his family private use of government planes on a regular basis. By contrast, Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Johnson generally used commercial flights for their private trips; Mrs. Truman and her daughter paid their own train fares home to Independence, Missouri, whenever they travelled without the President.
Currently $60,000 annually for the President; $20,000 for Presidential widows unless they remarry. In the first year of his retirement the President may spend up to $375,000 in “transition funds” for staff, office space, etc. Thereafter he is allowed up to $65,000 annually for staff and office expenses. In addition he has free postage for life.