UNITED STATES OF AMERICA proclaims the blue and white livery of Air Force One, majestically swooping low over Peking’s airport and touching down on the runway. The President and First Lady appear at the doorway and wave, the presidential seal at their backs and an honor guard on the ground to welcome them. They descend, and the President reaches for Zhou En-lai’s hand. The two shake, and onlookers can feel the aura of a new era of peace at hand.
The week in China goes by seamlessly, from the high-level meetings, to the dozens of dinners and banquets, to Mrs. Nixon’s cultural tours through the cities. Through the deceiving eye of television, a foreign trip by a President of the United States seems to go by effortlessly. But none of it happens spontaneously. Nothing is not off the cuff. Few take the time to realize the immense magnitude that goes into prepping for a presidential trip. Everything about presidential travel takes weeks, often months, to prepare and advance. And those preparations can have direct influences on the President’s policies: the policy of the United States.
Even RN’s handshake with Zhou has a backstory. In order to make a good impression on his Chinese hosts, and to make amends for John Foster Dulles’ 1954 snub, refusing to shake Zhou’s hand in Geneva, President Nixon instructed National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers to make sure only he and Mrs. Nixon emerged from Air Force One until the two shook hands. A Secret Service agent blocked the aisle just in case.
The Nixon White House literally changed the Presidency, in that it became a fully schedulable post, able to be moved around the world in an organizational, timely fashion.
None of the careful planning that goes on could be possible without the White House Advance Office, established during the Nixon Administration. Its first Director was Ronald H. Walker, a one-time Nixon campaign volunteer who had helped to organize candidate Nixon’s ’68 campaign travels. The Director of the Office of Presidential Advance is in charge of his large staff, and oversees and approves all aspects of advance, including airport arrivals and what the composition of the motorcades. consist of.
Walker was the author of the first White House Advance Manual, which alone set a precedence that all White House’s have followed. At 397 pages, the Nixon Manual took six months to write, carefully outlining the necessary steps involved in order to move the President.
“This manual, as old as it is, is still the manual that Presidents use today,” Ron affirmed. It has been refined as technology has advanced, of course, but it is still the prime example.
And we at the Nixon Foundation are proud that Ron is our President, and will soon assume his appointed position as Chairman of our Board.
Supplementing the advance work and the immense amount of time spent on preparing presidential trips, is how the President is scheduled, how that impacts how the West Wing is run, and how his staff works to maximize his time and minimize his effort where it’s unneeded.
Proper scheduling is vital and can have far-reaching results; David Parker, President of the American Gas Association who served in the Nixon White House, recalled the importance: “What does a President want to do with his years in office? What is his concept of governing? We made up a four-year schedule, anticipating all the major events of Nixon’s [first] term. With that, we could plan an overarching program of achievements. Without it, every day would simply fill up with activities.”
To accomplish this, Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman implemented a new structure of operations in the West Wing.
“The structure that Bob Haldeman ran was similar to that of a well run corporation,” recalled former Special Assistant Steve Bull. Picture an organizational chart like that of an upside-down funnel: “The President was the Chairman of the Board, Bob Haldeman was in effect the Chief Operating Officer, his key corporate vice presidents, if you’ll accept that term, were Henry Kissinger from international affairs, John Ehlichman, his vice president of domestic affairs, Rose Woods, the vice president of personal affairs, Herb Klein as vice president of media affairs, and later, Chuck Colson who became the de facto vice president of political affairs. These were the principal people with whom the President worked. These were the key people with whom and through whom he dealt.”
Thus only the most important dealings went to the President himself, while those under him handled all others. At all times, the sole focus was on the President. All other staffers, said Haldeman, needed to have a “passion for anonymity.”
In addition to making sure the President was well scheduled, things were done this way, Bull recalled, to ensure that low-level staffers “not try to barge in and sell pet projects, abuse phone opportunities, exploit personal relationships, or promote themselves or things of limited importance.”
The result was a tightly organized, precise system. By all accounts, it was very effective in terms of managing the President’s time.
Also very important was the way that President Nixon himself changed the West Wing in terms of governing. Prior to RN, decisions on pertinent issues were made by a specific member of the President’s Cabinet, and then sent to the President. RN changed things around a bit; decisions were now to be made by the President, and executed by the Cabinet.
Dealing with mail and correspondence from the American public, and, often times people outside of America, was very important to the President. The thousands of invitations the President receives to speaking events or memorials, receptions or conferences need to be sorted, decided on, and “staffed out,” or sent to the appropriate White House agency so that they get onto the President’s schedule.
One of those invitations was to visit China – from Mao Tse-tung himself.
The shock wave came instantly, even to members of the White House staff: “Oh my God, I’m going to CHINA,” Ron Walker uttered in disbelief. Heading up the advance team, he reminded them that in China, “we have no embassy” and advancing this trip will be “unlike anything we’ve ever attempted to do.” What followed was one of the most important visits by a President anywhere.
The real work comes in the planning. All of the careful plans – often timed down to the second – are made to allow the actual trip to go smoothly.
Many variables need to be decided on: the trip’s duration, whether overnight stays are involved, etc. Anywhere from 13 to 15 White House agencies contribute to the plans, including communications, press, speechwriting, political affairs, social, medical, and public liaison offices plus the White House Military Office and the Secret Service – perhaps also the vice president’s staff or the first lady’s office.
“For those of you who have been part of a presidential visit, you know what you are in for,” declared Bush 43 Advance Director Todd Beyer, “For those of you who haven’t, you’re in for quite a ride.”
For international trips, a contingency of over 600 advance, staff members, and representatives from the press, as well as over 200 Secret Service agents, fly to the location weeks ahead of time just to prepare for the President’s arrival. RN’s trip to China needed six months of preparation, including three advance trips.
Among the first dozen Americans in China in more than 20 years, and without an embassy on the ground, Walker’s team had to double their workload. They made all the arrangements and prepped for everything all by themselves.
The advance team scouts out possible event sites and begins a checklist of necessary, though often unbelievable, arrangements that must be hammered out. Toiletry items that Americans take for granted needed to be shipped in bulk to China, including toothpaste, Kleenex, deodorant, shaving cream, and – most importantly – toilet paper itself. Walker and his staff spent the entire month leading up the trip preparing manifests, flight and travel schedules, personal requests, lists of the members of the press, and countless others.A checklist for a Bush 43 trip was a lengthy 26 pages, containing 485 items – all approved by the White House itself.
The Military Office plans arrangements for Air Force One, the Presidential helicopters, the famed limousines (“beasts” as the Secret Service calls them). The Secret Service establishes the motorcade routes, vetoing those judged to be too vulnerable. Even a supply of the President’s blood is on hand, courtesy of the Medical Unit.
When preparing for a presidential trip, White House schedulers must ask themselves: What policy theme does the President want to publicize? Whether its aid for the elderly in rural Montana or the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, the bottom line is that trips are designed to fit the President’s priorities.
Site venues are nailed down, and the event planning begins. In these venues, meant for rallies and speeches and the like, the planners need to communicate “more than just the fact the President was doing something,” noted Larry Higby, Assistant to Bob Haldeman; the events needed to communicate “an aspect of his policy, what he was trying to get done in the world, and why it was important.”
To accomplish this, planners consider everything from size of the stage to how the President would look against the backdrop as he’s speaking at the podium. They snap photos and, nowadays, quickly email them back to the White House. Who will sit on the dais? How many chairs need to be set up? Balloon drops? Get local civic organizations and highs school students involved – this allows the POTUS to reach out to young people and the young people to potentially become supporters. Local volunteers are also an integral part of the planning and smooth execution.
Dwight Chapin, Special Assistant and Appointments Secretary to President Nixon, recalled the perfect scenario – placing the President against a backdrop of the White House as often as possible, simply because “no one else can.” To best communicate his message, then, his staff would regularly invite people to the White House; “labor leaders, Catholic leaders, Lithuanian groups, you name it – they would come to the White House, go back out, and the President would save the time and energy of having to go out; it was incredibly effective” in terms of both managing his time and showing Americans how he was working for them.
Said Larry Higby, “What you had was a melding of speech and picture into a totally different way of communicating with the American public.”
Everything must be done with close attention to detail perfectly, for attention paid to international Presidential events can directly impact public opinion on notable issues and influence U.S. policy itself, not to mention friendly relations with the host nation on overseas travels.
And then the President arrives. Game Day. Everything that had happened prior to, was all done to ensure that the President’s trip would go off without a hitch, and make it appear as if nothing had been planned at all.
The overarching rule of Presidential scheduling and advance came from RN himself: “I always want to be in the saddle, and I don’t want to be saddled.” Using this logic, perhaps Dave Parker summed things up best: “Everything we did related to what he was trying to achieve.”
RN’s travel was the subject of the second Nixon Legacy Forum, The Effective Use of the President’s Time, featuring Ron Walker.