It was news when the McCain campaign finally had enough money to charter a plane to fly across state lines from New Hampshire to Grand Rapids, Michigan; it was news when Obama’s chartered Gulfstream clipped the wing of a parked Cessna at Midway in Chicago; it was news when the Romney campaign hired a fifty-seat Embraer Jet with room for the press; it struck Scott Conroy, a CBS blogger, as news that Romney “munched on roast chicken and pasta with artichoke” in first class, while the press, at $2,000 per seat, dined on cold roast beef sandwiches; and it was major news when ex-First Lady Hillary Clinton, in a highly produced, light moment, got on the stewardesses’ microphone to tell the press, “My name is Hillary and I am so pleased to welcome most of you onboard.”
Whether it’s “Air Romney,” “The Thompson Air Force,” “Hil Force One,” “Air Force One,” “Air Force Two,” or McCain’s JetBlue, bits and pieces of life in the air are standard fodder for campaign coverage.
But none of the various dramas unfolding on the candidates’ planes currently in use can hold a candle to life on the great “Yai-Bi-Kin”—Barry Goldwater’s American Airlines charter in the 1964 campaign. It was a tri-engine 727, one of Boeing’s first medium-range jets, and it had been in commercial service for barely a year. Goldwater himself named the plane—Navajo for “House-in-the Sky.” But given the rifts within the Republican Party that year, given the hopelessness of Goldwater’s prospects and given how hard it was for reporters to make sure Goldwater actually meant what he said, the “Yai-Bi-Kin” was more a “House-Divided-in-the-Sky.”
As fond of Goldwater as the press became, his relations with most reporters was prickly. We tried our best to be accurate, but the senator spoke at times with such unprecedented frankness that he became furious when he saw his stark words quoted in the press. On October 14, the tension erupted in the press section of the “Yai-Bi-Kin.” We were nearing Denver when the news of the arrest of President Johnson’s top aide, Walter Jenkins, on a sex charge reached us. The hot bloods up front with Goldwater urged him to use the story as an example of the “moral decay” in American society. The hot bloods in the press section were making the same argument. In fact, Clark Mollenhoff of the Des Moines Register and Tribune and Lyn Nofziger of the Copley papers, two conservative journalists and subsequent Nixon factotums, tried bullying the rest of us on how to write our stories. They were finally silenced when something close to a shouting match erupted. Goldwater himself refused to mention the Jenkins story in public.
The edginess between first class and steerage on the “Yai-Bi-Kin” never quite vanished. In late October, the campaign scheduled a stop at the Tri-Cities Airport in Tennessee so that Goldwater’s appearance might publicize American’s inaugural service to Bristol, Kingsport, and Johnson City. After a Goldwater rally and ceremony, we reboarded and took off to Cleveland. Suddenly the “Yai-Bi-Kin” went into a steep curve and then a deep, screaming dive back toward the airport from four thousand feet. The press section was petrified; I can still see my seatmate yelling and clawing at the wall as we came swooping down toward the runway. We were almost level with the control tower as we went bombing by. The pilot, we heard later, simply wanted to give Tri-Cities a celebratory buzz.
When the plane leveled off, the candidate himself got on the stewardesses’ mike to proclaim, unscripted, “Well, that ought to separate the men from the boys.” Walter Mears of the Associated Press wrote that most of the reporters sided with the boys.