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01.18.09

The Last Ride

From Reagan’s tears to Jimmy Carter’s hostage power plays, the final flight Bush takes Tuesday is an occasion that inspires tall tales, Champagne toasts, and, occasionally, looting. An oral history of the last five final flights.

When George W. Bush steps aboard Air Force One on Tuesday, beginning the journey back to Texas, his presidency will officially be in the past tense. But during those few hours in the sky—the last ride of the leader of the free world—strange things tend to happen. Reagan cried on his plane. Carter made one last stab at getting in on the hostage crisis. George H.W. Bush, dealt a humiliating loss in the 1992 election, regaled his friends with country music.

THE DAILY BEAST talked to more than a dozen intimates of five presidents who rode on the farewell voyage. Their recollections suggest that while the presidency may be over, the triumphs and hurt feelings are still working themselves out.

By tradition, the outgoing president greets his successor at the White House. They ride together in the presidential limousine to the Capitol, leaving behind a small core of White House aides and, of course, the movers.

Gerald Rafshoon, communications director for Jimmy Carter: "It was the last day of our administration and also the last day of the hostage crisis in Iran. Hamilton Jordan and I were the last people to leave the Situation Room, because we were monitoring the hostage situation. We were hoping that Carter could announce it at the inauguration. Finally, at 12:20 p.m., someone said, "You'd better get out of here because the Reagan people are coming into the White House.” As we left the Situation Room, Reagan pictures were already up.

James Hooley, assistant to the president and director of presidential advance for Ronald Reagan: On our last day, there were only three or four of us still in the West Wing: chief of staff Ken Duberstein, a couple others, and myself. The phone was ringing off the hook. Some radio station was broadcasting the number.

Jake Siewert, press secretary to Bill Clinton: When you leave the White House and go to the Capitol, the presidents ride together. The crowd on the parade route tends to be more protestors, and that year a lot of people came specifically in the wake of the Gore thing to protest the results. President Clinton said Bush realized it wasn't going to be all fun and games, but when he saw people dressed as bananas to demonstrate that it's a "banana republic," [Bush] said something like, "I guess some people don't want me here."

Rafshoon: Carter said it was weird riding up to the Hill with Reagan because [Carter] was thinking about hostage situation while Reagan told jokes to him and Tip O'Neill. Later, I heard Reagan had said, "What's wrong with Carter? He was very quiet, seemed preoccupied."

Susan Porter Rose, chief of staff for Barbara Bush: The president and first lady were at the inauguration. At the conclusion, they’re escorted by the new president and first lady. You go right to the plane. Why would you spend another day in Washington?

After the inauguration of the new president, the outgoing president rides a helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base, for the plane ride home.

Ken Duberstein, Reagan's chief of staff: On sunny, clear days, presidents do a traditional flight around Washington on their way to Andrews Air Force Base. We lifted off the east front of the Capitol. As we hovered over the White House, President Reagan looked down and then tapped Nancy Reagan on her knee and said, “Look dear, there's our little bungalow.” It was at that moment that the tears began for Nancy, the president, me. That was the end of the Reagan presidency.

Fred Ryan, assistant to the president and later chief of staff to former President Reagan: From the helicopter to Andrews we could see the moving vans on the south side of the White House, taking the Reagans' things out and bringing the incoming president's personal items.

Siewert (Clinton): It was a little bit of a blur. The weather was pretty bad; we couldn't fly by helicopter. So the first part was actually the most interesting: We had just a small motorcade with just a few police cars. We had to slow down at intersections. President Clinton basically hadn't done that in eight years.

The outgoing president says farewell at Andrews, often to a group of supporters. Then he boards his plane—the same plane he's used through his presidency, though no longer dubbed Air Force One, as only the president's plane gets that title.

Rafshoon (Carter): A few of us took a helicopter to Andrews. Carter wasn't there yet. I remember we went on Air Force One, and Hamilton called back to Situation Room. The officer who picked up said "I cannot give you that information." Jordan said. "It's OK, I'm on secure line on Air Force One." And the duty officer said, "President Carter is no longer president, and you cannot access that information."

Siewert (Clinton): We had a crowd at Andrews to say goodbye—White House staff, the Cabinet, some friends. It was in the hangar because it was raining. [Clinton] gave a quick speech. The flight was quick—New York was the new home base for the Clintons.

Jody Powell, Carter's press secretary: The former president is the last person to board the plane. I remember looking back down the stairwell, and there was Amy Carter. Frank Moore, head of congressional liaison, had two daughters, Courtney and Elizabeth. And I had two daughters. They were all around the same age. But Amy was on her way back to Georgia, and the other children were staying in Washington. They were all in tears, as an 11- or 12-year-old girl might be. Well, [within minutes] all four girls [were] sitting in the aisle. The president had gathered them all up and taken them on the plane.

Rafshoon (Carter): We got on [the plane] and celebrated the hostages getting out. But it was sort of melancholy. Carter knew and he gave us the thumbs up as he got on the plane. Then he told us the details. I think we opened Champagne, I can't remember. We went back to Georgia, landed in Macon, took a helicopter to Plains. There were thousands of people from all over Georgia.

Margaret Tutwiller, State Department spokeswoman and assistant secretary of State for public affairs to George H.W. Bush: The Oak Ridge Boys were on the plane. Air Force One has a large conference room, and I remember all of us going there and they were singing songs.

Siewert (Clinton): They probably opened up a bottle of Champagne but most people didn't get around to having much.

Duberstein (Reagan): It was some celebration and some melancholy. Heading home to California, it was as I think as Reagan said, coming home to California but leaving behind Washington. So there was really mixed feelings. But it was a time for everybody to join hands as we did on formerly Air Force One and sing "Auld Lang Syne."

Ryan (Reagan): Someone brought out a cake and Champagne. Everybody raised their glasses, not sure what to say. Somebody said, "Mr. President, mission accomplished." That phrase brings other meanings now.

Thomas DeFrank, Newsweek reporter who covered Gerald Ford: [Ford and the reporters] just reminisced. We remembered some speech that was pretty bad or some trip—I can remember we talked about going into Palm Springs one night and we hit an air pocket and we dropped a couple thousand feet very quickly. Scared the hell out of everybody including Ford. … He said he hoped we would all come out and see him and stay in touch with him.

Hooley: I remember [Reagan] telling a story on the flight—not a true story, he didn't mean for us to think it was true. The day after he left the governor's office he got into the back of his car and waited a couple minutes before realizing there was no driver. It was meant to be apocryphal. He'd have a driver as ex-president, but no screaming lights and blocked intersections.

DeFrank (Ford): The press pool looted the airplane. Anything that wasn’t bolted down was taken as a souvenir. Notebooks, matchbooks, cigarettes, pillows, blankets, silverware, napkins, glasses with the presidential seal—all that kind of stuff.

Finally, the former president is home, back in civilian life—or at some approximation of it.

Hooley (Reagan): We had a public event at the airport when we landed. The USC Trojan band played. The president spoke briefly. We got on this much much smaller motorcade than usual. They did put the [police] motorcycles out for him, as a final honor.

Powell (Carter): We went back to Plains and there was a big welcoming crowd. I had already planned to stay down there for a few days because a number of members of the press corps who had covered Carter wanted to stay down there talking to him. But then Reagan offered him a plane to fly over to Germany and welcome the hostages back, so we turned right around the next day and flew to Germany.

Bill Nichols covered Clinton White House for USA Today and flew on Clinton’s final flight: One of the most vivid memories I have is once they went inside the house in Chappaqua, they had no responsibility for us as private citizens. We were in a driving snow storm and the Secret Service said, "Good luck, see you later." We had to figure out how to get to hotels and everything after our pampered lives as members of the White House press corps.

Siewert (Clinton): There was no crying on the flight—maybe at the end of the day when people were going back to the city on a bus from Chappaqua.

Rafshoon (Carter): Some of us flew back on the plane to Washington.

DeFrank: [After dropping off Ford], I had asked the Air Force One pilot if I could fly back on Air Force One from Monterey. He said yes. I was the only passenger coming back. Ford flies to Monterey to play golf, all my colleagues got off the airplane and stayed there, and I stayed on the airplane. I headed back. That was really very eerie. And of course I had a file to write and I banged it out on a portable typewriter. I’m sitting out on the press section as the only passenger.

—Compiled by Ben Adler, Ben Crair, and Benjamin Sarlin