Since the Kennedy Administration, the light-blue and white jet carrying the president has been more than just transportation for American leadership. It has been a symbol of what that leadership was meant to represent. An internationally-minded, forward-thinking ethos steeped in Modernism and Internationalism. Now, though, the White House is more America First than American Century and Air Force One is getting a new look to match.
An Air Force procurement publication revealed yesterday as part of the Department of Defense’s 2021 budget has confirmed what we had been fearing for months. The next plane to serve as Air Force One, which the Department of Defense hopes to have in service by 2024, will have a new livery supposedly designed by President Trump himself to look “more American.” The new paint will mean the Air Force is doing away with the classic Modernist scheme we’ve known for decades. And frankly, I think the new one looks awful.
The new planes, officially dubbed VC-25Bs once they receive modification for presidential duty, will be based on Boeing’s 747-8 and are scheduled to replace the 747-200B-based VC-25As that have been in use since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The plan to purchase new planes has been in the works since the Obama administration, but only now do we have confirmation that the new jets will not only be new, they’ll have a new look as well.
Indeed, the Reagan-era planes are due for replacement. They’ve seen heavy use since they were introduced at the end of the Cold War, having flown all over the world in support of diplomatic missions and summits as America found itself a lone superpower. After that long life, they’re becoming expensive to operate (like most 747s in commercial service as well) and the Air Force has decided it’s time to put them to pasture.
Considering that those planes were built to conform with a decades-long traditional paint scheme, the change of livery is particularly jarring, and it demonstrates just how determined the Trump administration is to fundamentally change the way America presents itself abroad.
To understand why this new paint scheme is so offensive, it’s worthwhile to learn about how the classic light blue, white, and grey design first came about. It’s got a lot more meaning to it than mere tradition and the fact that it’s been sent to the boneyard during President Trump’s tenure says an awful lot.
The planes that presidents have used since Kennedy’s term have all had the same basic livery that was designed by renowned Modernist industrial designer Raymond Loewy back in 1962. That instantly recognizable paint scheme became a signifier of American diplomacy during the Cold War and the period after. That legacy was not merely a side-effect of the planes’ visibility in service, it was a conscious effort aimed at using aesthetics as a component of American power projection overseas that spanned various government bodies and forms of expression.
You see, back when the first Loewy-liveried planes (the 707-based VC-137s) came into presidential use during President Kennedy’s tenure in office, the State Department and the office of the presidency were already working together to cultivate an image of America as a leader in all fields. It was the American Century, after all, and if the United States was going to make good on its reshaping of the world order after World War II, it was going to need to make sure everyone knew it.
The idea was to use the avant-garde as a way to demonstrate what American freedoms and values could offer on the world stage. A really excellent book called Cold War Modernists by historian Greg Barnhisel lays out the whole story: The State Department was working with world-famous Modernist architects to bring impressive, occasionally even challenging design to capital cities around the world. These embassies would hold reading rooms filled with books that critics adored as the best America had on offer but some Congressmen (Joe McCarthy among them) wanted to ban. The State Department brought modern dancer Martha Graham and jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong on tour to demonstrate that American tastes were as sophisticated as any, and they even surreptitiously published high-brow magazines for European audiences, asserting the legitimacy of American voices in left-leaning intellectual circles to tilt Western Europe away from the Iron Curtain. If America was going to face off against a comprehensive ideology like communism, it needed its own philosophical and aesthetic ethos to rally the West behind. It found one in Modernism.
If presidents of the United States, in their capacity as “leader of the free world” (whatever that means), were going to harness all of that energy every time they stood on some airfield, ready to greet the enemy in diplomatic embrace, they needed a flagship whose appearance could symbolize the nexus of these heady ideas with the raw power projection of American industrial and military might. They needed Air Force One.
At once appearing like a normal civilian jumbojet (the use of Pan-Am-like light blue was far from a coincidence) yet also clearly marked as a full member of the American Air Force’s fleet, the VC-137Cs were successfully able to simultaneously conjure up American international economic influence in the form of a Pan-Am Clipper as well as the specter of American nuclear power. The 707 with its pylon-mounted quad engines didn’t look all that different from a nuclear-armed B-52 to an untrained eye either. And all of this was a conscious effort to accentuate the aesthetic force of presidential travel by the Kennedy administration.
Of course, presidents had been traveling by air for decades by the time the early ‘60s rolled around, suddenly or not. The planes they had been using were largely part of a pool of Boeing 707-based C-137 Stratoliners used for all kinds of government business. It was only once Kennedy entered office that the presidential transport took on this symbolic role, and it was under his guidance that Raymond Loewy’s design sense was put to work.
The Loewy-designed planes were carefully concocted in consultation with Jack and Jackie themselves. Though the first couple’s interior suggestions were largely taken in stride by Loewy (Cubist paintings by Braque graced the cabin at launch, according to some of Loewy’s papers), the exterior was another issue.
Though the Kennedys were on board for Loewy’s broad vision, JFK and Loewy clashed over several details. The fonts the Kennedys picked for the external lettering were too “Yankee” to Loewy, and the application of the Presidential seal to the plane seemed gaudy to the designer but the president insisted. Ultimately, the seal would be removable, put in place only when the plane’s premier passenger, the President of the United States, would be aboard.
Kennedy unfortunately only managed to make use of the plane for a short while before his assassination, where the plane would gain even greater symbolic value. It was on one of the VC-137Cs that Lyndon Johnson took his oath of office in Dallas that fateful day. From then on, the plane was as much a symbol of the presidency as the White House could be, a kind of mobile projection of authority, but also the stability and resiliency of the office as well.
Since then, the image of Air Force One on the tarmac as Presidents arrived for summit meetings with foreign leaders has become a hallmark of the image-crafting that goes into diplomatic efforts, especially when the circumstances are rocky. This was understood so deeply by administration officials that President Nixon rescheduled his famous arrival in Beijing to meet with Chairman Mao so that he could be conspicuously photographed descending from his plane during daylight hours. Arriving in the austere cold of Beijing, the plane really was a symbol of what the West represented, especially when it pulled up to the lines of Ushanka-hatted Chinese soldiers that made up the honor guard.
The plane did indeed receive some changes over its lifespan, like a special “throne” chair for Lyndon Johnson, for example. The livery remained nearly the same through both Democratic and Republican administrations and was even adapted during the Reagan years for the 747-based replacement planes because the symbolic importance was too strong to be tampered with.
Now, was this public diplomacy approach foolproof? Of course not. While Western Europe and other parts of the world might have been enamored with American high-brow culture, other parts of the world saw American cultural exports as merely another appendage of imperial and capitalist power. It’s no surprise that when the Islamic Revolution wrested Iran away from the Ameican-aligned Shah in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini decried the cultural influence of America just as strongly as its conventional foreign policy efforts on the international stage.
Back at home, cultural critics like the New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani were worried that the American effort to project its identity across the rest of the world had deleterious effects at home. As America asserted itself in the post-Cold War era with an even greater onslaught of cultural exports, Kakutani wrote in 1997, the decline in quality served as “the ratification of our global role not only as cultural imperialists but also as cultural imperialists with bad taste.”
Even Joseph Nye, a Harvard political theorist who coined the term “soft power” to describe the kinds of non-coercive diplomatic policies that America has long employed, mourned the decline of the concept back in 2004 during the Bush years. Even though the Air Force One remained the flagship for American leadership on the world stage, the cultural reinforcement behind it had clearly begun to falter to a degree by that point.
But that’s nothing compared to the way they have withered lately. During this administration, though, the power of the international norms and institutions that were granted legitimacy by American participation seems to have waned even more. Does the United States still participate in multilateral summits like the G-7? Sure. Does President Trump meet with foreign leaders? Of course. But they seem to be a far cry from the days that a visit from an American president represented the participation of an “adult” in foreign affairs. At multilateral meetings, the president is openly mocked by allied leaders and even bilateral summits, which one might think could be managed to avoid controversy, have fallen off from what we were used to under other administrations.
For example, Trump’s meetings with Kim Jong Un of North Korea, though they made for an exciting news cycle, don’t seem to have accomplished much. It seems that building rapport on Twitter alone is a lot less successful than a cooperative diplomatic effort coordinated between agencies. When Nixon went to China, months of lower-level contact resulted in a meaningful if highly choreographed visit that resulted in significant policy changes. In contrast, the North Korea summits seem like they have been forgotten as the current presidency faces new challenges to its credibility every day.
Now, despite these challenges, it does seem apparent that President Trump does understand the symbolic significance of Air Force One. He has long called his personal 757 Trump Force One and used it to great effect during campaign rallies in the lead-up to the 2016 election. As president, he has jetted around in the VC-25s to meetings at home and abroad, used rides on the plane with him as an important carrot in maintaining support from Republican colleagues, and even routinely used the plane as a campaign prop after criticizing President Obama for doing the same.
Considering all that, it makes sense that President Trump would use the new design as an opportunity to make his mark on the image of the presidency. When he showed off a conceptual model of the replacement planes back in June, President Trump told the press that “baby blue doesn’t fit with us.” Instead, he wanted something “more American.” But does the new look really look “more American?” That’s only if you believe America is starting to resemble the way things worked around Trump before he took office.
Seriously. Look closely at that new paint scheme. Does it remind you of anything? I’ll give you a hint.
The new design looks an awful lot like an inverted version of the livery gracing his private planes, the top of the plane painted white, its belly blue, and a stripe of red and (of course) gold running the length of the craft between the two. Seriously, just swap the black for blue and flip it over. It abandons the Modernist image and ethos that Kennedy and Loewy envisioned for both the plane and the country as a whole. When considered in the context of the budget cuts and cultural changes that have impacted the State Department, it seems like that ethos is long gone from the rest of the American foreign policy philosophy as well.
Though the change of livery is likely most significant because of what it conveys about changes in the country’s foreign policy priorities, at least one member of Congress has raised more straight-forward concerns about how changing the design of the new planes might impact costs. Back when the new designs were first shown in public as a sort of test balloon, Democratic Congressman Joe Courtney of Connecticut introduced an amendment to defense spending legislation that covered procurement of the new jets to require congressional approval of any changes to the planes’ appearance. The measure didn’t make it out of committee, but it does show that there was at least some institutional pushback to the idea of changing the classic look.
That this is a 2021 budget for a 2024 roll-out, this plane wouldn’t be implemented in a Trump presidency, and there’s room to dream that it wouldn’t even be approved in one. But it’s a real possibility, and a worthwhile thing to look at regardless.
Interestingly, before his election, Trump once campaigned on reducing the cost of the next set of planes to serve as presidential transports. On the campaign trail, he laid into Boeing for the projected cost of the new planes, threatening to cancel the order. Since then, though, the president has seemed to have set aside any budgetary concerns about the project in favor of his new vision for the plane’s appearance.
All of this suggests that the Trump administration has firmly set its priorities on making its mark on the visual impact of the federal government by rejecting or removing any instance of Internationalist or Modernist design it can, ideally also making it hard for any of his administration’s changes to be undone later. If this plane does fly in 2024, it may carry another president, perhaps one trying his or her best to make up for the scandal-ridden administration of an impeached president. Even if President Trump gets reelected he’ll be replaced shortly after the planes come into use in any case, but the plane he designed will likely live on. The ones currently in service are nearly forty years old, after all.
The confirmation that the new jets will have the Trump-designed scheme comes shortly after plans for an executive order requiring new federal courthouses to conform to more traditional guidelines and eschew Modern design was announced. The president claims to be “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” with the executive order. But between the courthouses and his new planes, it does seem like he’s doing his best to make the entire federal government look gaudier than ever for generations to come.
The grim view of the situation is that Trump’s design is the Air Force One we deserve, one that openly displays his consolidation of executive power, and the ugliness of our foreign policy. It is a visual representation of Trump destroying institutional power to consolidate it around his person. But it hurts that we can’t dream of a more carefully-considered, more welcoming, more inclusive, and more optimistic diplomatic beacon, something Trump is doing almost everything in his power to prevent.