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“Flying Coach To Cairo”

July 2024
15min read

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. 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. 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. 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. I would not want to pick the date today, but in a realistic way that dialogue has to take place.” Carter restated the point: “There is no way for Israel ever to have an assured permanent peace without resolving the Palestinian issue, so I think Jerry is certainly right in saying these discussions have to take place.” The statement immediately aroused controversy among those, including the Reagan White House, who saw the organization as a terrorist group. But with their forward-thinking notion in the papers, Reagan needed to clarify his position on the matter, and he wasn’t pleased about it. No, he told the press, he had not ruled out talking with the PLO, but would not invite them into a discussion until they recognized Israel’s right to exist.

Ford and Carter also saw eye to eye on the issue of free trade. In 1982 they released a joint statement condemning protectionism as a threat to world trade. Years later they each lent support to the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico and to the establishment of permanent normalized trade relations with China.

The Carter-Ford relationship hit a bumpy stretch when they participated in an international delegation to oversee the 1989 Panama election, which threatened to wrest power from Gen. Manuel Noriega. When Carter judged that pro-Noriega forces had manipulated the ballot count, he condemned Noriega for blocking the path of democracy and successfully appealed to leaders of the Organization of American States to do the same. The press praised Carter; Ford, on the other hand, was denounced for having left Panama on election day, after three days of meeting with proand anti-Noriega coalitions, to attend a celebrity golf tournament in California. The Washington Post pointed out that Ford, unlike Carter, “sits on corporate boards and is available as a golf partner for wealthy groupies.” Ford thought Carter had overstepped his bounds as a former President. “I backed off, and he pushed himself forward,” Ford said not long ago. But this incident notwithstanding, the friendship survived intact and has, through the years, deepened.

When they reunited with their fellow-former George Bush and President Clinton at a dinner celebrating the 200th anniversary of the White House, held at the mansion in December 2000, both commented warmly on their relationship. “Certainly few observers in January 1977 would have predicted that Jimmy and I would become the closest of friends,” Ford told the guests, mostly presidential family members, White House staffers, and historians. “Yet we have, bonded by our years in this office and this house.” During his turn at the podium Carter reciprocated. “I challenge any historian here tonight,” he said, “to find any former Presidents who, after leaving the White House, have formed a closer and more intimate relationship than Gerald Ford and I. I am grateful for that.”

As for the journey to Cairo that Carter initially resisted 25 years ago, though born out of tragedy, he now calls it “one of the best trips of my life.”

Mark K. Updegrove is the author of Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House, just published by the Lyons Press, from which this article was adapted.


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