It is said that wherever the president is, so goes the White House. On land, at sea or in the air, the power of the presidency travels well. At least it does now. It wasn’t always like that.
Until Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency in the first years of the 20th century when he travelled in a car, presidents still got around in a horse and carriage. It was simply difficult and time consuming to travel before more practical travel was possible in the 20th century for anyone, much less a president. And, so, presidents stayed close to home.
Today, the office of the president of the United States has its own airplane, its own fleet of limousines, its own helicopter squadron, and, at one time, its own yacht with all of the memorabilia that goes with each of them.
First, came the airplane. President Franklin D. Roosevelt boarded a Pan Am flight in secret to Casablanca for a World War II conference in 1943, the first sitting president to fly in an airplane (Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to fly in 1910, but not while in office). Ever since, a president has had an airplane to use throughout the presidency. It is called Air Force One and is only used when a president is physically aboard any aircraft, including the official one.
President Eisenhower went one better. He got a helicopter, or as it was initially called an autogyro. In 1957, it took the president an hour to ferry across Narragansett Bay in Newport, Rhode Island to get to Air Force One to fly back to Washington, DC. It was determined that a military helicopter, standing by for emergencies only, could do the job in 7 minutes. Today, Marine One serves as an indispensable time saving tool to quickly transport the president to Air Force One or any nearby location without the use of cumbersome motorcades.
Which brings us to one of my favorite sights to see in Washington, D.C., the presidential motorcade. You can tell when the president will be travelling the streets of Washington, DC about 2 hours before the president even leaves the White House. Streets are blocked at every intersection by local police and traffic diverted. Preceded by the sounds of many police sirens, the presidential motorcade with several similar looking official limousines, wends its way through the now empty streets of Washington, DC completely unimpeded, being advanced and trailed by police vehicles and press vans. What a way to break traffic gridlock.
Still, that luxury was long in coming. President Theodore Roosevelt first rode in a car while in office, but it wasn’t until his cousin, again, Franklin D. Roosevelt who was commissioned with the first official presidential limousine in 1939, a Lincoln V12 convertible called the “Sunshine Special.” Today, the presidential limousine is a handcrafted fortress-like limousine called Cadillac One or as the Secret Service call it, “the beast.”
And then there’s the sea. At the beginning there was the presidential yacht, the USS Mayflower. It was commissioned for the use of the president of the United States in 1904 and decommissioned in May 1929, just a few months before the stock market crash in October that year. Aboard the Mayflower, President Theodore Roosevelt helped secure a peace in the Russo-Japanese War which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.
The USS Sequoia was purchased in 1931 for use during Prohibition, but used unofficially by President Hoover as a presidential yacht until 1936 when the USS Potomac served as the official yacht of the president until being decommissioned in 1945, just after Roosevelt’s death. The Sequoia was officially the yacht of the Secretary of the Navy, although presidents continued to use it as well through 1969. From 1969 until 1977, it was used exclusively by the office of the president. President Jimmy Carter sold it out of government service in 1977. There currently is no official yacht for the president of the United States as of 2008.
That is a very short history of presidential transportation, not including the host of horseless carriages that preceded the 20th century. What’s important to realize, though, is that there is so much memorabilia associated with presidential transportation that hasn’t yet come to light. There are all manner of signage and glassware, clothing and patches, and who knows what else out there. Let’s start cataloguing it here.