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History: Howie Franklin – and passengers – always flew first class

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Chief Master Sgt. Howie Franklin served five presidents as chief steward aboard Air Force One. He has nothing but admiration for every one of them — and their wives.

Franklin was guest speaker at Georgetown County’s celebration of Aviation Week Friday at the county airport. He talked for more than an hour about his personal experiences with Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Franklin disregarded the men’s politics. He was aboard the plane to serve “the most powerful man in the world” so he could do his job.

Ford was a “down-to-earth homespun kind of guy,” Franklin said. “He never passed the front of the plane without stopping to say hello.”

Franklin said he flew with Ford extensively when he was vice president before Richard Nixon’s resignation. When Ford became president, he greeted Franklin aboard Air Force One: “Remember, Howie, I got here first.” Franklin said Ford didn’t have the ego of an elected president because he wasn’t elected. “He took his job very seriously,” Franklin said, “and he was a great family man.”

Jimmy Carter was a teacher, Franklin said, always teaching about history. “He was an engineer, and engineers can’t help themselves,” he said. “They are wired differently. They line things up.”

Franklin flew many trips with first lady Rosalynn Carter. “My personal opinion is that she was one of the finest first ladies I ever worked with, very sharp, wrote her own speeches.”

Franklin said the Carters were his first experience with a “Southern genteel family.” He met Miss Lillian, the president’s mother, when she headed a delegation to attend Israeli president Golda Meir’s funeral. President Carter had no liquor in the White House, but Miss Lillian boarded Air Force One and asked Franklin for a “bourbon and branch.” Franklin didn’t know that was Southern for bourbon and water. He mixed her a drink and watched her win money playing cards with Secret Service agents and the press. After a time, Miss Lillian joined Franklin in a jump seat in back of the plane. He said she told him she was in awe of her son being president of the United States. When Jimmy was in school, she said, he had to work a lot harder to get the same grades that his brother Billy got. “Oh, dear,” Franklin responded.

When Ronald Reagan was elected, Franklin said he was curious to see the “real” Reagan. “I wanted to know if the guy in front of the camera was the same as the guy I saw behind the scenes,” Franklin said. “I tried to catch him being a phony for eight years. If I went into his office and he was by himself, just the president and myself, and I gave him something as insignificant as a glass of water he would do something to raise my self-esteem. He was very sincere, whatever he did. That’s a boss. There was an aura about Reagan that energized people around him.”

Franklin said Reagan had a great sense of humor. On a trip to Texas for a turkey shoot, Reagan said, “I don’t know why they’re sending me to Texas. I’ve got enough turkeys in Washington.”

On another occasion, Reagan’s staff began discussing the chances of a movie being made about actor Mickey Rooney and who might portray him. Somebody suggested getting Mickey Rooney. “Too short,” said Reagan turning from his paperwork.

On a trip to Alaska, Reagan asked for his trench coat, but first lady Nancy Reagan told the chief master sergeant to get his coat with the fur collar. The president said he may look over-dressed in the coat with the fur collar, but the first lady held firm. Finally, as he was ready to step from the plane wearing the coat with the fur collar Reagan announced, “Well, I’m not wearing the gloves” and winked at the sergeant.

President George H.W. Bush flew thousands of miles early in his term. “Doesn’t this guy know he’s got a secretary of state?” Franklin wondered. Bush invited the crew from Air Force One to a July 4 holiday at Kennebunkport, Maine. They thought it would be a big thing, but it was just the family.

“President Bush was the only president who ran his own company and made a profit,” Franklin said. “He did that for 26 years. He was a very good businessman. Was he a great politician? Probably not, because he didn’t get re-elected.”

The person in the Bush administration that the crew “respectfully feared” was first lady Barbara Bush, he said. “She expected you to be professional,” he said. “She was the lady who ran that house.”

Franklin said he felt a connection to President Clinton because they were nearly the same age. Clinton played rock ’n’ roll, and one night he asked if the music was too loud. “I’ve been waiting for you to come along for a long time,” Franklin said. “All the other presidents listened to country music. I like country, but they listened to the sad stuff: ‘My marriage is a failure, and my divorce ain’t working out either.’ Here I got a president listening to the Four Tops. It made my day.”

Franklin remembered having to wake President Clinton after just two hours of sleep. “Sir, I sure hate to do this,” he told the president. “Then don’t do it,” Clinton answered. Franklin had to get both the president and first lady up and dressed in a short amount of time. They were under duress. “They were getting along better than me and my family on Sunday morning going to church,” he said.

He said Hillary Clinton was a genius, the president’s equal mentally. “She doesn’t have the communication skills Bill Clinton has,” he said. “She’s decisive; she’s aggressive. A guy like that would be a great CEO.”

Franklin retired at the end of the Clinton administration and runs the Brunswick County, N.C., Airport.

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