Leave The Colors Of Air Force One Be

News outlets are reporting that President Trump is planning on redesigning Air Force One, the plane that ferries the President of the United States around the globe.  Boeing is starting work on the new plane, which will replace the plane that has been in service for the last 30 years.

http3a2f2fcdn-cnn-com2fcnnnext2fdam2fassets2f180717113814-05-af1-designThe President thinks its time to junk the understated blue and white motif of the plane, which has been the color scheme since the Kennedy administration.  He thinks a red, white, and blue design would be better.  He also wants to install a bigger bed on the plane — the current bed apparently isn’t as large as the one on President Trump’s personal plane — and he also reportedly has issues with the softness of the current plane’s hand towels.  As the case with so many things the President is involved in, he’s very enthusiastic about the new design, and says the plane is going to be “incredible,” “top of the line,” and “top in the world.”

I’m all for modernizing Air Force One.  No doubt there have been significant advances in airplane design and outfitting in the past 30 years — aside from the constant reduction in passenger leg room and comfort that we’ve experienced in commercial passenger jets, of course — and the President’s plane should have all of the cutting edge technology, as befits the United States’ leadership position in the world.  And clearly the President has the prerogative to fiddle with the plane.  After all, the Kennedys chose the current color scheme and jettisoned the red and gold that had decorated the plane in the Eisenhower administration.  By all means, get softer towels and a bigger bed in there.

But I like the current color scheme.  It’s not only familiar but also understated and classy, and I think it projects a powerful image to the world.  It’s not shouting about who we are; instead it speaks softly (and carries a big stick).  I’m a fan of the American flag and our national colors, but that doesn’t mean we need to douse everything in red, white, and blue.  And I’m concerned that we’re going to end up with some gauche, over-the-top design with maybe a screaming eagle and some gold foil thrown in, too.

The color of Air Force One is something that America got right.  I say leave it be.

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On That Dallas Day

President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed 50 years ago today.  Fifty years is a long time, but in some ways the Kennedy assassination seems even more distant and remote.  So much has happened since, and so much of it has been bad.  The world is such a different place now, it is almost as if the shooting in Dallas occurred in another reality altogether.

I was a first-grader when it happened.  I remember a scratchy voice coming out of the polished wooden PA system box above the blackboard and announcing that the President had died, and our teacher shocked and sobbing.  But, of course, I was just a little kid, not quite sure who the President was, even, or what this would mean for me or my family.  Everything I know about President Kennedy — the romance of “Camelot,” the inspiring speeches, the successes, the failures, and the details of his personal life — I’ve learned since his death, with the information, always, shaped and colored by the terrible senselessness of his assassination.  The impact of his death on how his legacy was viewed in the years after his death shouldn’t surprise anyone; America lost a vigorous young President and the promise he brought with him, and the country was profoundly shaken.  Even now, half a century later, it is hard to view things with the abstract objectivity of historians.

Students of popular culture tend to put things into neat packages.  For many, the story is of a boring, stodgy America during the 1950s, followed by the short sunburst of the Kennedy years, and then a country that lost its way after bullets rained down on that Dallas motorcade.  That story, I think, is a bit too tidy and, perhaps, confuses a timeline with causation.  The ’50s were not a Norman Rockwell painting, and the Kennedy presidency was not the golden era that it was once depicted to be.  To be sure, the years after the shooting were tumultuous, with race riots, the Vietnam War, anti-war protests, more assassinations, Apollo moon landings, and profound social changes, but did the Kennedy assassination cause, or even contribute significantly, to those events?  We can safely conclude that the Apollo moon landings would not have happened but for the challenge issued by a newly elected President in 1961, and we know from that lesson and others that individual people can alter and shape the future — but how many of the signature events of the ’60s were the inevitable result of historical forces long since set in motion, bound to happen no matter who was President?

Historians will comb the record of the 1000 days of the Kennedy presidency to try to determine whether his assassination should be viewed like that of President Lincoln, whose death clearly affected the course of Reconstruction after the Civil War, or like that of Presidents Garfield and McKinley, whose killings are treated like mere eddies in the onrushing current of history.  For average Americans, the question is much more basic:  If President Kennedy had survived, would our world now be a better place?  Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer.

“Anniversary Journalism” Is Lazy And Often Pointless

It seems like every day you hear news stories about the anniversaries of an event.  Recently, we were treated to stories about the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger explosion, and the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.  There have been countless others.

This kind of “anniversary journalism” is, in my view, lazy journalism.  The ingredients of these stories are always the same.  It has to be a round number anniversary — one year, 5 years, 10 years, 25 years.  If the news story is on radio or TV, you play a clip of the recording of the event, and then you interview people who give their recollections and perhaps add a few recollections of your own.  The stories are simple to prepare and simple to produce — and there are an enormous number of “round number” anniversaries of events to choose from.

In addition to being lazy journalism, I also think that, with rare exception, these stories are pointless because the events being remembered actually have no continuing cultural or historical significance.  John F. Kennedy gave a memorable inaugural address, but his challenge to “Ask not what your country can do for you . . . ” obviously did not prevent the creation of our current political atmosphere that is so rife with pork barrel spending, earmarks, and special interest lobbying.  Why is it important that we relive the Challenger disaster and see, again, the ugly photos of the mid-air explosion that took the lives of its crew?  With all due respect to the crew members and their families, the reality is that the Challenger explosion did not change the focus or approach of the U.S. space program or have any other lasting impact.  It was just a bad thing that happened 25 years ago that I would rather not remember.  It has no more relevance to today’s America than the burning of the Hindenburg or the sinking of the Titanic.

We would be better served if our news media stopped its resort to these “anniversary stories” and instead focused on reporting the news about what is going on, today, in our country and in our world.

The Prez And The Press

Some members of the press are raising questions about President Obama’s lack of formal, prime-time press conferences.  Indeed, he has gone longer between such conferences than did President Bush before him.  Most people probably will find this hard to believe, because President Obama seemingly has been all over the television screen since his inauguration.  Most of his appearances, however, are through scripted speeches, “town halls,” one-on-one interviews, or other forms of media exposure that do not involve fielding live questions from skeptical reporters.

It’s odd that President Obama seems to be dodging formal press conferences.  He obviously is an intelligent person, and his answers to questions typically are well-formulated.  Of course, the danger of a press conference is that an unscripted answer might gin up a media firestorm that distracts the President until it dies down.  Something like that happened at the President’s last formal press conference, when he said Cambridge police “acted stupidly” in their interaction with Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  The resulting controversy was not put to bed until after President Obama hosted an awkward “Beer Summit” at the White House.  It may be that that experience caused the President to conclude that formal prime-time press conferences just aren’t worth it.

As a former journalist, I think such press conferences are worth it.  I think it is good for the President to break out of controlled environments and meetings with nodding, sycophantic followers and face some tough and even oddball questions from the media.  Presidents who are skillful in handling questions from the media — like President Kennedy — look sharp and at ease; their ability to deal with aggressive, probing questions with intelligence and humor inspire public confidence.  Press conferences undoubtedly keep the President more on top of issues that are of current interest to the country, even if they aren’t particularly of interest to the President or his advisors.  They also show that the President is not some remote, all-controlling figure, but a human being, elected to an important office, who is answerable to the public.  If Presidents duck the press, they end up being depicted as out of touch — and maybe they are.

A Disturbing Reminder

I saw on the RealClearPolitics website that today is the 28th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. It sent a shiver down my spine and brought back some weird memories. President Reagan was shot during the first week I was on the job as the press secretary and legislative aide for Congressman Chalmers P. Wylie. The shooting happened not too far from our offices at the Rayburn House Office Building, and I had to write about the shooting for the Congressman’s weekly radio broadcast. Fortunately, the President was not fatally wounded, and his brave and uplifting reaction to the shooting — I recall he told his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck” — helped everyone to get past a traumatic incident.

It seems odd now, but I grew up with political assassination attempts as a regular part of the landscape. President Kennedy was shot when I was in kindergarten; I remember the news coming over the loudspeaker system and my teacher crying. When I was 11, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Then George Wallace was shot, and there were two attempts on the life of President Ford, the killing of Harvey Milk, and finally the shooting of President Reagan. And then, seemingly as abruptly as they began . . . the shootings blessedly stopped. The worst incident that I can think of since the Reagan shooting was the recent Baghdad press conference where the Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at President Bush. This change obviously is a wonderful move in the right direction — but what caused it?