THR Web Features   /   September 6, 2023

Means of Ascent

Taking the stairs, presidential style.

Vincent Ercolano

( Left: President John F. Kennedy lands for a visit to the Western states in 1962; right: President Joe Biden ascends Air Force One’s shorter staircase en route to Arizona, 2023; Alamy Stock Photos.)

Nudging aside tropical storms and former president Trump’s legal troubles in recent days has been the news that President Joe Biden has begun using a short staircase to climb aboard Air Force One. Since June, Biden has apparently been eschewing the “sometimes wobbly” eighteen-foot set of stairs of the kind scaled by US presidents since 1953, when Dwight Eisenhower became the first commander-in-chief to take to the skies in a plane officially designated Air Force One. (It was a Lockheed Constellation, a propeller-driven plane whose amenities included a pressurized cabin, a novelty at the time for passenger aircraft.) Biden’s new means of ascent has drawn interest to the point that National Public Radio reporter Tamara Keith, with the assistance of NPR intern Leigh Walden, evidently went to the trouble of quantifying how often two of our recent presidents opted for the short stairs. In her story as it appeared on the NPR website, Keith reported that “former President Donald Trump used the short stairs more than Obama, though fewer times in total during his four years in office than Biden has to this point.” Recollecting his experiences as Air Force One stair master for Trump, Kent Gray, a political consultant and logistics expert, good-naturedly recalled what he is perhaps better known for: arranging for installation of the stage-prop railings Senator Bob Dole tumbled through while speaking from a podium during his 1996 presidential campaign. (Possibly the sole satisfaction the seventy-three-year-old Kansas Republican derived from the keenly embarrassing incident was landing hard on a couple of journalists.) My wife’s family owned a beach cottage at the time whose ramshackle back porch was enclosed by what we began referring to—unkindly, I’ll admit—as the “Bob Dole railing.”

President Biden’s recently acquired preference for a shorter Air Force One staircase reminded me of a newspaper story I once wrote that touched on the very subject of presidents and staircases. A writer/editor (civilian type) for a military paper at the time, I did an interview with an army colonel, soon to retire, in which he reminisced about President John F. Kennedy’s June 1963 visit to White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, where this officer, then a young captain, was stationed. To his excitement, he became involved in planning for the event, which began no less than five months before Kennedy’s arrival. His excitement was tempered by bouts of sheer terror, he acknowledged, because he had been tasked with giving the president a briefing on the Nike-Zeus, a missile system being tested at White Sands. In the end, the presidential visit went very smoothly, the old soldier told me, in part because of JFK’s easygoing attitude toward the formalities. When it came time for him to deliver his briefing to the president, Kennedy told him, “Captain, I know you’ve worked hard preparing for this briefing, but it’s been a long day, it’s hot, so let’s just sit down and talk about it.” But perhaps the key element in the success of the occasion was a low-angled wooden staircase the hammer-and-nail crew in facilities management had constructed, per Secret Service instruction, for the president to use when climbing to the speakers’ podium—the better to ease Kennedy’s chronic back pain. Thus are linked, not only by party but also by the challenge of getting up a flight of stairs, the oldest man ever elected president and the youngest.