- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Get the exclusive club of men who have served as presidential press secretaries together in the same room, and talk soon will turn to one of the job's more memorable experiences: flying aboard Air Force One.
That's what the producers of National Geographic Television wisely figured when they planned the preview of the first-ever documentary on the "flying White House" (which airs July 11 on PBS). And how very clever of them to persuade the group to act as "honorary hosts" at the Geographic's headquarters Monday night.
President Bush and three of his predecessors (Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter) agreed to be interviewed for the project, so it wasn't too surprising that the turnout was high from the ranks of those who orchestrated various chief executives' dealings with the media over the years — surely one of the toughest jobs in government. Ari Fleischer, currently in the hot seat, made it over from the White House just before the lights dimmed, joining cohorts Joe Lockhart, Marlin Fitzwater, Larry Speakes, Ron Nessen, Jerald terHorst, Gerald Warren and Ron Ziegler for the 40-minute show.
Though the film is mostly about the twin 747 jets currently used by the president, Mr. Fitzwater, the elder Mr. Bush's spokesman, was quick to point out during pre-screening cocktails that, strictly speaking, Air Force One "is any plane the president is on."
He laughingly recounted his most memorable experience aboard a hardly glamorous C-130 transport plane between Riyadh and Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. The hot and uncomfortable "flying crate" had been put into service because of security concerns about using the regular — and spectacularly visible — "Big Blue" aircraft in the politically volatile Persian Gulf region.
About 30 members of the current Air Force One crew were bused in from Andrews Air Force Base for the big event, including mechanics, stewards and the planes' "top guns": Col. Mark Donnelly, who is retiring as pilot after four years and 500-plus flights, and his co-pilot and successor, Col. Mark Tillman (who assumes command this week).
After a military presentation of colors, all received a well-deserved ovation from an audience made up largely of political and media heavies. As it turned out, however, some were more VIP than others. Sam Donaldson, Roger Mudd, Ann Compton, Craig Fuller, Leonard Marks, Ann Stock, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Kenneth Starr and anyone else who ever had been aboard Air Force One got stars on their name badges, separating them from lesser mortals.
It was a designation that didn't go unnoticed as guests eyeballed each other over buffet tables filled with chicken, roast beef, chocolate-chip cookies and other uniquely American fare. While some expressed surprise that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was among the starless, others were heard to mumble about what surely must be the "proper observance of separation of powers."
Justice O'Connor, however, seemed hardly perturbed that the court lacked its own plane. "We travel commercial," she said, "which is as it should be."
Guests enjoyed the production's exclusive "insider's view" of the planes, which have been described as "one part Oval Office, one part Camp David with wings," complete with 24-hour room service, health care facilities and elaborate communications and security devices that remain classified. Directed by Emmy-award-winning cinematographer Peter Schnall, the film includes revealing moments with Mr. Clinton during a three-day presidential trip last year and a recent interview with President Bush as the plane was in flight.
There was plenty of historical perspective as well, of course (FDR's World War II visit to the Casablanca Conference, John F. Kennedy's fatal Dallas trip, Richard Nixon's post-resignation flight home to California) which the press-secretary elders were glad to provide when asked.
Mr. Lockhart, for example, enumerated a lengthy list of major decisions (military operations on Iraq, handling of the Elian Gonzalez case) made onboard during the Clinton presidency. Mr. Nessen said he still shudders whenever he thinks about hustling President Ford onto one of the old 707 aircraft after Sara Jane Moore tried to assassinate him in San Francisco in 1975.
"The bartenders," he remembered, "poured a lot of drinks that night on Air Force One."

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