The Man Who Gave Air Force One a Lift

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tags: Air Force One, Story of the week



Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, is the author of nine books and a contributor to NBC News and “PBS NewsHour.” Follow him on Twitter at @BeschlossDC.

Next time you see an image of Air Force One taking off, think Coca-Cola and Lucky Strike. The look of today’s presidential plane, emblazoned with “United States of America” on the blue-and-white fuselage, originated with a quiet collaboration between President John F. Kennedy and Raymond Loewy, who was perhaps the most accomplished commercial image and design expert of the post-World War II era.

When the first jet, a Boeing 707, was added to the presidential fleet in 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower was content to let the plane’s nose and tail be painted with the Air Force’s easily visible “international orange” and the sides with the block-lettered label of an obscure bureaucracy: Military Air Transport Service.

But his successor, John F. Kennedy, and Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, were far more attuned to how symbols could enhance a leader’s image — what we might now call his “brand.” When Kennedy first ran for Congress in 1946, his financier father, Joseph (who had once owned the American franchise for well-known liquor brands such as Haig & Haig Scotch), said, “We’re going to sell Jack like soap flakes.” During the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy supporters wore PT-109 tie clips to remind voters of their candidate’s heroism in saving his crew after his Patrol Torpedo boat sank in the Pacific during World War II.

As a college student, Jackie Kennedy had once drolly written that her life’s ambition was to be “a sort of overall art director of the 20th century.” Operating out of this aesthetic instinct, her interest in history and her desire to help her husband (who had been elected by a tiny popular-vote margin) at a time of almost unrelenting Cold War crisis, she famously restored the White House with the ambition of improving how the American presidency was presented to the world. To both Kennedys, Eisenhower’s drab, military-looking plane was a missed opportunity. They started by having its fuselage repainted with the words “United States of America.”

In March 1962, Mr. Loewy, who had a house in Palm Springs, Calif., saw the presidential plane landing at the airport there. That evening, he told his friend Gen. Godfrey McHugh, Kennedy’s Air Force aide, that the aircraft, with its “rather gaudy” orange graphics, looked “terrible.” General McHugh explained that an enlisted man of little experience was responsible for the design. He added that a new Air Force One was being constructed. Mr. Loewy offered to make some suggestions, without taking a fee, on how the new plane’s appearance could be made more distinguished. ...




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