In the beginning, mythology told stories about events or experiences that would otherwise leave us mystified – how the world was created, what happens after we die. The first myths were mostly optimistic fictions, but our ancestors longed to believe in them: that’s how religion established its hold.
The original myth-makers expected us to take literally God’s fabulations about heaven and hell and to obey his bullying commandments. Today, less credulous, we think religion itself is a myth, by which we mean a consoling lie. In common usage, myth is at best the word we use to refer to amusingly preposterous urban legends – tales about albino alligators in the Manhattan sewers or the Holy Grail’s hiding place under the floor of a Paris shopping mall.
In our society, it is publicists, spin doctors and advertisers who devise the myths. Sometimes the aim is to exalt an imperfect human being: celebrities and even politicians need to possess charisma, a word that originally vouched for a believer’s direct contact with a divine source. Myth also invests manufactured objects with a supernatural grace or glory. In the 1950s, Citroën’s DS car came to be known as the Déesse – a goddess of sleek metal and smooth leather, so curvaceously aerodynamic that it seemed, according to Roland Barthes’s description in Mythologies, to have descended from the sky, not driven up the highway. Irony is our defence against such sales pitches: we need to pick the myths apart, deciphering their sneaky designs on us.
Take the case of Air Force One, the American presidential plane – not to be confused with Air Force 1, which is a Nike trainer, mock-heroically named to ally it with the vertical lift of a jet during takeoff. Or could the plane be mimicking the athletic mystique of the shoe? On its white, shiny fuselage, the proud slogan UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is underlined by a blue stripe, a counterpart to the Nike flash, which pays streamlined homage to the Greek goddess of victory. More than a means of transport, Air Force One is a propaganda tool, and its effectiveness depends on the implied presence of a deity.
So long as the doctrine of American isolation prevailed, the presidency was a desk job, tethered to Washington DC. But when the US acquired global power after 1945, the president took to the air, travelling in a plane that has come to represent the ubiquity and intimidating might of this ultimate empire. Equipped with surveillance systems that eavesdrop on the lowly world it overflies, allegedly able to fire missiles and to withstand a nuclear blast, Air Force One is evidence of dominance. Even if we don’t accept American superiority, we bow down before American immensity: the customised 747 currently in use is as tall as a six-storey building and as long as a football field.
On the ground, the president travels in a black Cadillac nicknamed the Beast, ready to repel assailants with rocket-propelled grenades, pump-action shotguns and tear-gas cannon. Soaring aloft, he exchanges a beast for a bird: Air Force One is America with wings, a mechanised version of the beaked, pinioned eagle – a predator that clutches in its claws twin bundles of peacemaking olive branches and spiky, militarised arrows – that appears on the country’s Great Seal.
The first President Bush, who took delivery of the current double-decker Air Force One to replace the humbler 707 he inherited from Ronald Reagan, remarked that it embodies America’s majesty. A Freudian slip, surely – republics should be unmajestic and the USA was meant to be the paradise of the common man – but not inaccurate. Air Force One is a triumphal chariot, a steroid-boosted equivalent to the golden coaches and slow-motion Bentleys in which the Queen sedately trundles along. For extra effect, Lyndon Johnson installed a hydraulic king chair on board his Air Force One, which enabled him to hover in midair as he harangued the congressmen he invited into his cabin.
Like the country whose head of state it carries, Air Force One is exceptional – and exceptions are always made for it by air-traffic controllers, who suspend other operations to give it instant clearance. The numeral in the plane’s call sign is exclusive, monopolistic, not the inception of a series; it brags of being one of a kind, rather than a first among equals. In fact that solitary integer is misleading: here is the first of the myth’s little fibs. Air Force One has a duplicate that, like the vice-president, is a useful safeguard against mishaps. But to preserve the myth of American primacy, the second plane is never referred to as Air Force Two and whichever of them carries the incumbent becomes Air Force One for the duration.
George W Bush may be the only president to have used both planes on a single journey. At Thanksgiving in 2003, he flew to Baghdad, where he spent a couple of hours posing for photographs as he dished out portions of festive turkey to the troops who were fighting his war. To ensure that the trip remained secret, he retreated to his ranch in Texas for the holiday, then travelled back to Washington on the first Air Force One – though it couldn’t officially be called that because he was pretending not to be on board: the trip was logged as routine maintenance. The second plane was waiting in a hangar, fuelled and provisioned for the onward flight to Iraq. With a baseball cap as his camouflage, Bush entered it by the back stairs, which no president ever uses. That skulking between planes was an odd manoeuvre, very unlike his customary strutting. Bush was playing hide and seek with his twin Air Force Ones, and duplication hints at duplicity, a cultivation of double meanings that dodges, as myth always does, between truth and falsehood.
The plane borrows America’s attributes – its size, its might, its technological supremacy – but can any president dare borrow those attributes from the plane? Although Americans proverbially describe their nation’s CEO as the most powerful man in the world, it’s a hollow boast, since the only way of making that power manifest is by opening the suitcase of nuclear codes chained to the arm of the military aide who accompanies the president everywhere. Power is meaningless unless it’s displayed, enacted: hence Vladimir Putin’s bare-chested preening or his sessions of bone-crushing judo. American presidents sometimes jog to demonstrate fitness, though Jimmy Carter once embarrassingly keeled over while out for a run. A president’s best chance of personifying confident, aerobic America is in bounding energetically down the stairs of Air Force One. Yet the height of those stairs and their steep pitch are reminders that the presidency is a heady, hubristic office, undermined by pitfalls. In 1975 in rainy Salzburg the notoriously clumsy Gerald Ford slipped on the wet bottom step as he deplaned and tumbled on to the tarmac, forcing his wife to shield him with an umbrella as an official tugged him upright.
For once avoiding risks, when Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination last year he relied on a gilded escalator in his New York headquarters to deposit him in the lobby where the photographers were gathered. Stairs require effort, which may be unavailing or self-defeating; an escalator – or so Trump hoped – allowed him to waft down smoothly from on high like a golden-maned angel of deliverance.
In one respect, America’s aeronautical myth has to wheedle its way around a flagrant contradiction: Air Force One carries the commander-in-chief, but he is not in command of the plane. When Barack Obama came on board for the first time, he shook the hand of the pilot and complimented him for looking the part, like Sam Shepard in The Right Stuff. In the film of Tom Wolfe’s book about Nasa’s astronauts, Shepard as Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier while remaining laconic, nonchalant, metaphorically down to earth. Actually, the pilot who flies Air Force One is nicknamed Top Gun during his tenure in the cockpit; it’s lucky that Obama was greeted by a laidback Shepard lookalike rather than a clone of Tom Cruise, who played the hepped-up hotshot naval aviator known as Maverick in Tony Scott’s film Top Gun.
Obama’s charmingly deferential remark joked about his own unfitness – physically at least – for the office. Americans want their head of state to be both a warlord and a saviour and these impossible expectations have turned the presidency into a myth – a starring role for an action hero rather than an exhaustingly intricate job for a fixer schooled in the art of compromise.
Trump, when asked last December which president he most admires, did not pay the usual unctuous tribute to Lincoln, Kennedy or Reagan, but said that his role model was James Marshall. He was referring, he explained, to Harrison Ford on the plane: in Wolfgang Petersen’s 1997 film Air Force One, Ford plays a president whose name suggests martial prowess as well as anticipating the air marshals who, after 9/11, began to travel on civilian flights, weapons at the ready. Marshall’s backstory alludes to his time piloting combat choppers in Vietnam, when he received the Medal of Honor for valour in battle from one of his predecessors. He is therefore well prepared to beat up or gun down the terrorists from Kazakhstan who take over Air Force One after a summit meeting in Moscow; in an emergency he can even fly the plane himself.
Harrison Ford’s reaction to Trump’s accolade was scornful, sad and a little anxious. Donald, he groaned, it was a movie! It’s not like this in real life – but how would you know? Undeterred by protests about his infringement of copyright, Trump uses Jerry Goldsmith’s embattled but rousingly brassy music from the film to underscore his campaign appearances, and when he arrived in Cleveland for the Republican convention in July he was greeted by the fanfares that accompany Ford’s gung-ho bouts of fisticuffs with the hijackers. All he did was step out of his name-tagged helicopter, but Goldsmith’s theme lent that act an air of unearned grandiosity.
Trump’s enthusiasm is easy to understand: as Air Force One begins, Marshall plays the kind of president any of us might fancy being, a man for whom the executive branch and its perks are a licence to daydream. Returning to the airport in wintry Moscow, he suggests a whimsical detour on the way home: Let’s go to Barbados. Here, in theory, is true power, unhindered by responsibility; the plane is a magic carpet. But once he forfeits control of Air Force One, Marshall is suddenly disempowered. Hiding from the terrorists in the luggage compartment, he finds a mobile phone with which he tries to alert the cabinet to his plight. He has to go through the White House switchboard and when he identifies himself to the woman on duty she refuses to put him through because he sounds like a crackpot fantasist. That, a year ago, is how everyone viewed Trump; real life, we now know, is not quite as reasonable or as immune to delusion as Harrison Ford hoped.
Whatever frenzy or folly it is that impels Trump, his motive can hardly be the desire to survey the world from inside Air Force One. He already has a plane, a secondhand 757 branded with his surname along its fuselage and his cross-country trips in it have made him look prematurely presidential. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, began her campaign in April 2015 with a road trip, a reprise of the mythically intrepid expeditions of the pioneers in their horsedrawn wagons: she travelled from New York to Iowa in a chauffeured and prudently armoured Chevrolet camper, emerging to be photographed at fast-food outlets along the way.
Days after she set out, Obama teased Hillary’s mock-modesty at a dinner for White House correspondents. Reflecting on the economy’s ups and downs, he said: I have a friend who used to make millions a year. Now she’s living out of a van in Iowa. But this July he invited Hillary back on to Air Force One to fly with him to an electoral rally in North Carolina. In a tweet, Trump railed against this partisan misuse of the plane and claimed that Hillary’s free trip cost taxpayers half a million dollars. Obama’s gesture indeed had a solemn constitutional significance. Never before had an incumbent offered a ride to a candidate for the succession who wasn’t already the vice-president; it meant, as one commentator pointed out, that Obama was ready to hand over the keys to Air Force One. Perhaps that transfer should be part of the ceremony at the inauguration next January.
Guarded by snipers and sniffer dogs in a hangar that is described as a sanctuary, debarred to anyone without security clearance, Air Force One is a symptom of the privileged exclusivity that Trump the populist pretends to despise. With his customary shrewdness, he has maintained an advantage by symbolically opening his private jet to all, thanks to a video tour posted on YouTube.
As hostess – a throwback to the days when flight attendants were described that way – he has appointed Amanda Miller, his gatekeeper in the reality show The Apprentice. (She first came to Trump’s attention as a 15-year-old waitress at one of his golf clubs and after she graduated from college with a degree in fashion merchandising he hired her as a corporate marketer.) With one hand propped on her hip like a starlet posing on a red carpet, Miller purringly extols the plane’s luxuries: seat belts plated in 24-carat gold, head rests on which the Trump family’s spurious crest is embroidered, silk-clad walls for the boss’s bedroom, Ultrasuede ceiling panels, mahogany cabinets, a shower cubicle. We are supposed to slaver enviously at this ostentation; if we don’t, we condemn ourselves as losers.
Trump’s plane does without the emergency medical facilities secreted on Air Force One, which has an operating table discreetly stowed in a wall like a fold-up bed. Instead, Miller recommends a bouncy mohair divan (she pronounces it dive-in) in the guest bedroom. To conclude the tour she curls up on a sofa, tosses gobbets of popcorn into her mouth and relaxes with a film from Trump’s on-board cinémathèque of a thousand movies. We hear only noises – a burst of gunfire and the clatter of broken glass: she could be watching Harrison Ford fight back against the hijackers in Petersen’s Air Force One.
That would not be my choice for in-flight entertainment, since the film’s climax is a plane crash. With failing engines, ruptured fuel tanks and a damaged rudder, Air Force One finally lunges into the Caspian Sea and breaks apart; just in time, Ford is safely yanked on to a hovering Hercules turboprop, which, as its pilot beamingly announces while the theme appropriated by Trump blares out one last time, at once becomes Air Force One. This is how the succession works in the supposedly unmonarchical United States: the plane is dead, long live the plane.
Obama, asked in 2012 what he might miss if he weren’t re-elected, said: The plane is really nice, it really is. It’s a great plane. Now that he’ll soon lose his right to it, he must dread having to take commercial flights again – a crash landing for the executive ego. Of course there are consolation prizes. When Bill Clinton left the White House, he swapped Air Force One for an aerial pleasure palace, a Boeing 757 owned by his fun-loving billionaire buddy Ron Burkle, a venture capitalist who, according to a recent article in GQ, paid Clinton $15m for his schmoozy aid in recruiting international clients; the in-flight services available on Burkle’s jolly jet prompted the tycoon’s employees to call it Air Fuck One. Absolute power, as Trump understands, can mean uninhibited self-indulgence.
As Americans prepare to elect another president, a new presidential plane is on order. Last year, the air force secretary, Deborah Lee James, announced that the Boeing VC25-A currently in use would be replaced by a Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental, which when fully missionised… will meet the necessary capabilities established to execute the presidential support mission, while reflecting the office of the president of the United States of America consistent with the national public interest.
That sentence, which mixes aggression with evangelism by placing an execution between two missions, packs in all the contradictions of the myth that sustains the country and supplies its Messiah-like sense of purpose. But will a technological upgrade to the plane solve the problems of the presidency, which, thanks to props like Air Force One, has an aura of insuperable power, even though in practice it is limited or even enfeebled by partisan feuds and the rapid disillusionment of an electorate that wants its wishes instantly gratified?
James promised that the new Air Force One would be designed to function as an alternate airborne White House. That’s a military precaution, a response to the prospect of nuclear war or some other annihilating catastrophe on the ground. In the first Independence Day film, an extraterrestrial death ray incinerates the White House; Bill Pullman, playing President Whitmore, escapes in Air Force One, suits up as a fighter pilot at a base in Nevada and leads an attack to wipe out the aliens. Reality flails and flounders, unable to match the myth. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, President Bush spent the rest of the day flying to and fro between Florida and Nebraska in a sky that had been emptied of all other traffic. Secure in the mobile command centre of Air Force One, he issued no coherent commands, later shiftily explaining that he remained aloft because he didn’t want to give the bad guys the satisfaction of killing him. Air Force One keeps the president out of harm’s way, but it also ensures that he remains out of touch. The shining seas and purple mountains celebrated in the patriotic hymn are far below and actual Americans remain invisible.
The presidential aircraft, James insisted, is one of the most visible symbols of the United States at home and abroad. True, but a plane is an odd or ominous symbol for a country, which surely consists of terrain, not airspace. Thunderous, scarily propulsive, bristling with weaponry, Air Force One encourages effusions of the wrong kind about American greatness; what’s worse is that Petersen’s film has made it an arena for crazed feats of derring-do by a superhero – or, with luck, by a superheroine in a nattily tailored trouser suit. The overlapping of politics and fiction is absurd, but that’s no reason not to find it alarming. The very irrationality of myth makes it irresistible in a time of unease or trauma like the present: we are all at risk of being blown away by the rhetorical jet exhaust that Air Force One leaves behind it.
Peter Conrad’s Mythomania: Tales of Our Times, from Apple to Isis, is published by Thames & Hudson next month. Click here to order a copy for the special price of £15.94
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