Air Force One is a theater for cameos en route to South Africa

It is hard to imagine that President Obama looked forward to a transatlantic flight aboard a plane -- even a famously big plane -- with a predecessor whose economic and national security policies he criticized sharply even after taking office.

But so far, so good on the way to Johannesburg to attend the late Nelson Mandela's memorial service Tuesday. According to Josh Gerstein, a Politico reporter traveling in the press "pool" aboard Air Force One, the Obamas and the Bushes have managed their time together quite nicely. Former secretary of state and former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is aboard, too, and each of the marquee passengers has his and her own secluded spot.

President and Michelle Obama are in the forward cabin; former president George W. and Laura Bush are in the medical cabin just behind; and Clinton is in the senior staff area. All have spent some time together in the plane's conference room. Nearly two dozen members of Congress left for the service on a separate government aircraft hours earlier.

Obama has made no secret of his failure to love Washington glad-handing and back-patting, small talk of any kind, really, with elected officials who pledge support in person and shove a warm rhetorical knife through your ribs in public. So the second plane for Congress -- and the availability of private sanctuary and separation aboard Air Force One during the long, long flight to South Africa -- is just good air-safety sense.

George W. Bush, though, apparently felt a bit cooped up in his old ride without the commander-in-chief accommodations available to him. He wandered back to the press cabin during the flight to Senegal, where the plane refueled, and spent 90 minutes or so chatting with journalists. That was not his common practice while in office. Clinton, whose husband and daughter will join her in South Africa, visited with journalists as the plane took off for Johannesburg.

The current and former first families were not the only big names that took a turn around the plane during the flight. National Security Adviser Susan Rice strolled back to chat with reporters, briefly, and according to Gerstein, so did Attorney General Eric Holder -- until he realized what cabin he had wandered into and quickly retreated.

Obama is scheduled to speak at the service Tuesday, sharing a stage with Cuba's President Raul Castro, among other foreign leaders. There will be no cabins reserved for refuge on hand.

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Sean Sullivan | December 9, 2013