Dick, Jimmy and Jerry fly coach to Cairo

In honor of Anwar Sadat’s funeral, the 37th, 38th and 39th presidents of the United States boarded their once familiar Air Force One.

January 29, 2010 19:31
Dick, Jimmy and Jerry fly coach to Cairo

carter laughing 298 ap. (photo credit: AP)

Ever since he had given up smoking in the 1960s, president Ronald Reagan had an irresistible craving for jelly beans, and at 4 p.m. on October 7, 1981, he scooped up a handful from a crystal jar on a side table, and between chews, haplessly confessed, “Al, I have a problem. My security folks won’t let me attend Anwar Sadat’s funeral. They say it’s far too risky. Got any ideas who might go in my stead?”

Reagan and his secretary of state, Alexander Haig, were sitting under a portrait of Thomas Jefferson which dominated one wall of the Oval Office, and elsewhere, mementos, plaques, signed photographs and all the rest of the bric-a-brac of a public man who had once been a middling film star and then a popular state governor.

They were ruminating over the assassination the day before of the president of Egypt, and Haig, a veteran soldier with a trim carriage, chiseled nose, firm chin and silver bristled hair, pushed his bottom lip forward in thought, and proffered, “How about authorizing me to lead a delegation of all the former presidents – Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon? For the Egyptians, their presence at the funeral would be an uncommon mark of respect.”

Reagan popped a jelly bean into his mouth, and mused, “Jerry, Jimmy and Dick – what a grand idea. I’ll ask them personally,” and he instructed his secretary to put him through.

A day later, the 37th, 38th, and 39th presidents of the United States boarded their once familiar Air Force One, bound for Cairo. Haig, as head of the delegation, insisted on commandeering the spacious forward cabins whose luxuries the former presidents had once enjoyed, an act that dismayed the chief of protocol, Lenore Annenberg, who had to relegate the three former heads of state to the coach section.

There they sat crammed at tables like booths in a diner, and behind them, senior congressmen and former cabinet secretaries, as well as a 14-year-old South Carolina boy named Sam Brown, son of a disabled supermarket employee, who had written such laudatory letters to Anwar Sadat as a peacemaker that the Egyptians officially and incongruously invited him to the ceremonial interment of their slain leader.

As they winged their way to the Middle East, the three presidents spent a restless and edgy night regurgitating a dinner of beef tenderloin and crab claws while periodically exchanging inconsequential observations. Gerald Ford disliked Jimmy Carter because of the overly hostile manner he had conducted his 1976 presidential campaign against him, and won. Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter shared a natural mutual antipathy. And Ford could not forgive Nixon for having lied to him and to the nation about his Watergate shenanigans, and then, once pardoned, refusing to apologize for them. In fact, Ford’s aversion toward his predecessor was so intense that whenever he was invited to an event, he had his aides scan the guest lists to make sure Nixon was not among them.

Buoyed by a martini or two, Nixon alone seemed in relatively good spirits. For him, just to be sitting there on that plane in such company put him back to where it counted after years of ostracism following his ignominious resignation in 1974. The anticipation of mingling once more with world leaders as a representative of America legitimized him as a former world leader, he conjectured.

The one thing that irritated him now, as it did all the rest, was Alexander Haig’s intermittent pestering directives, sent back through his protocol officer, about how they were to behave upon landing in Cairo. Basically, he was telling them that they were to shut up and line up mutely behind him on the tarmac, while he read an arrival statement on behalf of them all. “He’s treating us like children,” carped Carter.

On the night of their arrival, September 9, the funeral’s eve, Haig hosted a dinner at their hotel to which he invited the many embassy staff people who had gone to great lengths to cater to the disparate needs of the jet-lagged VIPs. Roy Atherton, America’s ambassador to Egypt, was in charge, and in a dining room decorated with wedding-cake chandeliers and rococo arches, he devised a floor plan consisting of a slightly raised and vastly extended head table for the official delegation, and a semicircle of round tables in front of it for everybody else.

When the visitors walked in and went in search of their places, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger found himself sitting next to Jeane Kirkpatrick, the US ambassador to the UN, whom he utterly detested. So he stomped over to a senior embassy officer and demanded he be seated elsewhere. Guests were adroitly shuffled around to make room for him, and when Kissinger was directed to his new place he found himself sitting next to Sam Brown, the 14-year-old boy from South Carolina. “I have not traveled 8,000 miles to have dinner with a kid,” growled Kissinger, and off he huffed to squeeze himself near his old bosses, Nixon and Ford.

As the main course was cleared away, Haig beckoned over the hassled chief of protocol, and said, “I guess it’s time for a few speeches. What’s procedure?”

“You open, and then call on the former presidents,” whispered Lenore Annenberg into the his ear.

“In what order do I call them?” hissed Haig.

This was a delicate question which caused Annenberg to pinch her lower lip with her teeth in thought, and whisper back, “Have them speak in reverse order of tenure – the most recent president first.”

“You mean first Carter, then Ford, then Nixon?”
Annenberg nodded and Haig tinkled his wine glass for everybody’s attention, and rose to speak. He spoke briefly and to the point about the deceased’s contributions to peace with Israel, his qualities as a world leader and the bonds of friendship he had woven with America, so manifestly illustrated by the presence of the three former presidents.

Next came Carter. He spoke passionately about his personal relationship with Sadat, and consonant with his syrupy spiritual temperament, worked himself up into an ode to the splendor of amity, harmony and serenity.

Now it was the turn of Gerald Ford, and he, in typical Fordian fashion, wandered off in diverse directions, saying absolutely splendid things which, in and of themselves, were absolutely appropriate to the occasion but absolutely forgettable, so that when he sat down everybody applauded with genuine approval, but no one could remember a thing he had said.

Finally, Nixon stood up to give the most extraordinary after-dinner speech anyone in that room had ever heard. He started off well enough by expressing gratitude for president Reagan’s invitation that had brought him there, and referred briefly to the courageous contributions of Sadat to Middle East stability. But then, niftily he projected himself as the senior of the three, lauding his superior experience as a statesman by elaborating in detail the numerous visits he had made over a period of 22 years to countries and governments far and wide, first as senator, then as vice president and then as president.

Incredulity crept into people’s faces as, in the process, he launched into a soliloquy about embassy staffs – how, in the course of his many visits to so many capitals, what had impressed him the most was the support he had received from embassy staffs. Without such an excellent Foreign Service in those wonderful embassies, he said, he could never have accomplished the things he had accomplished. And what about the local employees who knew the native language – surely they were deserving of extra special praise, for without them America could not run its operations overseas.

And the chauffeurs – what of them? How could he have been driven around overseas, getting from place to place, had it not been for the chauffeurs? Which brought him to the waiters. “In all these functions there are the big state dinners and functions to go to – just one big event after another,” he said, as if speaking at a waiters’ convention. And then, gushingly, “After all, how could the United States be appropriately represented overseas without the waiters who make those functions such a huge success?”

Whereupon, to drive the point home he called over all the waiters to have his picture taken with them, and to congratulate each one personally with a shake of the hand.

As all this was going on titters and giggles and nudges and murmurings spread from table to table, until eventually, realizing he had strayed off track, Nixon got back to Sadat and said a few more words about him and his deeds.

As he sat down Ford was heard to whisper into Kissinger’s ear, “Sometimes I wish I had never pardoned that son of a bitch.”

The writer’s book, The Prime Ministers – An Intimate Narrative, is to be published in March. [email protected]

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