So Why Does Air Force One Need Publicity, Anyway?

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Jason McLane / AP

A Boeing 747 sometimes used by the President flies low over Manhattan, followed by an F-16 chase plane, during a Federal Government photo op on April 27

Sometimes, even the most straightforward question can create evasion and denial in Washington's corridors of power — a question like "Why does Air Force One need publicity photos?" It's a legitimate question, following the official explanation that Monday's flight over lower Manhattan by one of the President's fleet of 747s (shadowed by two fighter planes), which evoked ghosts of 9/11 and spread panic, was simply an ill-conceived photo opportunity.

A call to the Air Force on Wednesday seeking an answer to that simple question was referred to the White House Military Office, just across the Potomac River. The White House office — which had approved the flying photo opportunity but ordered that the public be kept in the dark about the flight plan — said the Air Force was handling the issue. As is typical in such snafus, the White House Military Office's answer wasn't completely wrong, as a second call to the Air Force revealed. (See pictures from the Air Force's 60th anniversary.)

"That's a question for the White House, and I understand that they may be bouncing you back here," Air Force Lieut. Colonel Tadd Sholtis explained. Following Tuesday's release by the Air Force of the cost of the flight — $328,835 — the beleaguered White House Military Office was bouncing all questions on the topic back to the flyboys. But the Air Force, which knows how to employ stealth technology and evasive maneuvers when warranted, wasn't going to allow the media to lock on. "The purpose of the flight, why did it happen, all those kinds of things," Sholtis said, "need to be addressed to the White House Military Office."

On another call to the White House Military Office, headed by Clinton-era Army Secretary Louis Caldera, the reporter explained how the Air Force was answering only questions about the cost of the flight and not anything else. Cornered, the WHMO official punted: "You'll have to call the White House press office." But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs couldn't shed any light on the matter either. "They've had [such photos] for at least two decades," Gibbs told TIME on Wednesday. "Our point was that we don't need a new one." (The publicity pictures, apparently, are released to the media and also handed out as souvenirs to guests who travel aboard the presidential plane.)

"It was a mistake," President Obama had said of the incident the day before, "and it will not happen again." The White House has steadfastly refused to rule out firing Caldera, whom Obama appointed with a glowing recommendation. "Louis has served his country with distinction in uniform and in government, and his pedigree is second to none," the President said at the time. "I know he'll bring to the White House the same dedication and integrity that have earned him the highest praise in every post." (See pictures of NASA, Boeing and the Air Force teaming up.)

Unfortunately, "dedication and integrity" don't necessarily include common sense and intelligence. It appears to be taking official Washington some time to grasp that Obama isn't interested in the aura of power supposedly conferred by new presidential helicopters (he's killed a proposed $13 billion upgrade of the fleet of 28 Marine Ones) or glossy souvenir photos of Air Force One flying over New York City. Trimming the trappings of power gives his Administration the credibility to seek sacrifices from other parts of the government, and from taxpayers too. But it appears that some folks — like Caldera, who as of this moment still heads the White House Military Office — still haven't gotten the message.

See a day-by-day guide to Obama's first 100 days.

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