Last week was President’s Day and I thought it’d be fun to check out the spots in New Orleans our Commanders-in-Chief had visited over the years. Honestly, I thought I was going to visit a few spots Obama ate, swing by Jackson Square to note where Bush gave his post-Katrina speech, and call it a day. Boy howdy, was I wrong.
New Orleans’ relationship with the Presidency began with our nation’s third executive. Thomas Jefferson, wrote of the French colony that, “there is on the globe one spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy.” He understood that our country’s growth would constantly be stymied if another nation controlled the port at the mouth of our most important river. When Jefferson authorized the purchase of this region from France – and got a lot more – New Orleans began its transformation from a Creole colony to an American city.
Out of Office
Several future Presidents visited here earlier in their lives, sometimes shaping their worldview or helping them gain prominence. Andrew Jackson became a national hero when he helped repair American pride by smashing the British in the Battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812. An upcoming adventure will center around this battle, and will highlight some of the spots Jackson visited, such as Chalmette Battlefield, and the Maspero Exchange — currently occupied by the Omni Royal Hotel, and the site where Jackson met with pirate, Jean Lafitte. (Maspero Exchange was also the site of another pre-Presidential visit).
“Old Rough and Ready,” as he was called by the soldiers he led to victory during the Mexican-American War, Zachary Taylor is the only President to have lived in Louisiana. He resided in Baton Rouge for much of the second quarter of the 19th century and was stationed in New Orleans twice with the army.
As a teenager, Abraham Lincoln captained flatboats down the Mississippi River between 1828 and 1831. New Orleans is the only major deep south city he is said to have visited, and, upon arrival in New Orleans, it is believed Lincoln witnessed his first slave auction — at that same French Quarter site Andrew Jackson is said to have met with Jean Lafitte. I wrote about the incredible history of this Exchange (and others) in a previous adventure.
On September 2, 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant – feeling good after victories in the South, like the one at Vicksburg – rode into New Orleans and, after stopping for food and drink, was trampled by his horse. “My leg,” Grant wrote in his memoirs, “was swollen from the knee to the thigh, and the swelling…extended…up to the armpit. The pain was almost beyond endurance.” Grant remained in his New Orleans hotel bed for more than a week.
On June 7, 1915, six years after his Presidency, Teddy Roosevelt visited Louisiana (starting with a brief stop in New Orleans) “under the auspices of the Audubon Society in the hopes of seeing first-hand” what his conservationist policies had accomplished.
And, during the 1927 flood, President “Silent Cal” Coolidge lived up to his name (and showed future Presidents the consequences of not seeming to take a natural disaster seriously) by declining to visit the disaster area, instead sending his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. Hoover was painted as a savior, and rode that popularity to the Presidency the following year.
FDR Comes to NOLA
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt arrived in New Orleans by train on April 29, 1937. Was he the first acting President to visit us? I can’t find any evidence to the contrary, but I still have a lot more research left to do. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was helping to lift the country out of the Great Depression, and his Works Progress Administration (WPA) put roughly 8.5 million Americans back to work rebuilding the nation.
In the 1930s, WPA projects appeared around town, including many of the stylish buildings and bridges seen in City Park. On this visit, the President came to town to be honored at the dedication of Roosevelt Mall in City Park. This President’s Day, I biked up the mall looking for evidence of his speech. I couldn’t find that, specifically, but I did find a few other things.
Also on this stay, FDR managed to get wrapped into one of the most famous anecdotes in New Orleans political lore. He went to dinner with Governor Richard Leche (who Roosevelt’s Justice department would eventually send to prison, but not because of this dinner), Mayor Robert Maestri, and others. The mayor was not known for his eloquence, and advisers implored him to say as little as possible during the meal.
The dinner was at Antoine’s Restaurant, which, established in the French Quarter in 1840, is the country’s oldest family-run restaurant. In the late-19th century, the founder Antoine’s son, Jules, invented Oysters Rockefeller, the most famous dish in the restaurant, and named after the richness of the sauce (waka waka).
When the oysters were brought to the table, Mayor Maestri, so eager to please, was unable to contain himself. “How do ya like dem ersters, Mr. President?!” he blurted to a startled Roosevelt.
Through the years, Antoine’s has also served Presidents Carter, H.W. Bush, and Clinton (all outside of their terms of office, I believe), and it was President’s Day night, so why not check it out? Plus, I was excited to go try out those famous oysters.
The only problem was I had a date already scheduled in Mid-City with a woman I had met before Mardi Gras. I asked her if she’d mind if we changed the date to a Presidential bar crawl.
“That’s the weirdest first date I’ve ever been asked to go on,” she said, and then paused for a few seconds. “I’m in.”
At Antoine’s, I asked the host if there was any documentation from Roosevelt’s visit, and he brought us past the bar to what he called, “The Mystery Room,” which acquired its name during Prohibition. While alcohol was illegal, some would go through a door in the ladies’ restroom to this secret (mystery) room and leave with a coffee cup full of booze. When they were asked where it came from, they said, “It’s a mystery to me.”
Tonight, a single party dined in the surreptitious room as Michelle and I walked near the walls looking at black and white pictures and what appeared to be souvenirs from famous restaurants around the world. We saw a note signed by President Carter, and then finally found the picture we were looking for.
Seated at the bar, we talked about normal first date things, while sipping on cocktails and sampling three varieties of oysters, the most famous of which is topped with that rich sauce, green from parsley and other herbs. I savored a bite, and tried to imagine what the President would have thought, being here.
Michelle put her empty shell down and asked, in her best N’awlins accent, “How do ya like dem ersters, Mr. President?”
A Return Under Difference Circumstances
On September 29, 1942, FDR was back, but this time the President wasn’t here to eat oysters and visit parks. He was here to view the nation’s war machine. A year after the United States entered WWII, Roosevelt was on a cross-country tour of America’s defense systems.
FDR was here to meet Andrew Jackson Higgins, the man who invented the Higgins boats, whose design allowed troops to land on beaches without natural harbors, and who General Eisenhower would later call, “the man who won the war for us.” The President toured the Higgins Industries plant near City Park in a convertible. The company’s band played music for the President, and Higgins yelled for workers to give “the world’s greatest man three cheers.” Once they did, he hollered at them again to “show how fast you can get back to work!”
As Vice-President, Truman also visited the plant. It was at factories like this one, around New Orleans, that Higgins’ workers made 29,000 of his vessels. It was these ships that carried our troops onto the beaches of Normandy and mainland Europe on D-Day.
Higgins Industries is no longer there, but on President’s Day, I biked over to a plaque on City Park Avenue where the plant used to be. Today, the space is occupied by Delgado Community College, whose graduates Higgins lauded as helping to secure an allied victory.
We Like Ike
As a young military officer, Eisenhower spent time in central Louisiana, and he came to New Orleans in 1952 as the Republican nominee for President. But, on October 17, 1953, to commemorate the sesquicentennial (the what?!) of the Louisiana Purchase (its 150th anniversary), Eisenhower visited our city for the first time as President.
That October morning, he spoke in Jackson Square of how unique the purchase of Louisiana from the French truly was:
We are observing the anniversary of an act which, though born of other nations’ conflicts, involved the death of not a single American soldier. It was, for the United States, an act of peace. It was also an act of vision and of daring.
It was daring for a new-born nation, lacking all modern communications making for unity, to venture into a huge, unexplored area of unknown natural hazards and little-known inhabitants. It was daring for such a nation to accept so heavy a debt as this unique purchase imposed upon it. It was daring for our two negotiators in Paris–Livingston and Monroe–to decide to accept Napoleon’s surprising offer without fear of repudiation by their national leaders separated from them by the breadth of an ocean. It was daring for our President, Thomas Jefferson, to support their decision instantly and to face squarely the opposition not only of foreign powers but of political critics of great passion and small vision.
And he talks about how the $23 Million price was a spectacular deal for what would become all or part of 13 united states, 900 thousand square miles, and a river “unmatched in length and unsurpassed in majesty”:
One single state–of the thirteen originally involved in the Purchase–recently reported the value of one single crop in one single year.
The state was Iowa. The crop was corn. The value was over 700 million dollars. This sum is thirty times as much as was paid for the entire Louisiana Territory.
Only one other example shall I give you. It concerns this city of New Orleans, and, specifically, one part of this city–the Port of New Orleans. During the first four months of this year, there passed from the fields and cities of America, through the port of this city, exports valued at more than 250 million dollars. And this is a sum eleven times greater than the cost of the whole Territory.
Considering the main reason for the deal was to keep this vital port out of another country’s hands, these ancillary benefits are pretty spectacular.
All of this builds into a speech laying out the Presidents views on the importance of peace, friendly relations with other nations, and international trade. The official records show Eisenhower speaking in Jackson Square at 11:52am. But he wasn’t done yet.
Ike gave one more speech that day, less than an hour later (I don’t know how this is possible) at Moisant Airport. Moisant Airport would become New Orleans International in 1961, and then renamed Louis Armstrong International Airport in 2001. To the confusion of many present-day New Orleanians, it retains it’s original airport code: MSY, which stands for Moisant Stock Yards.
In this second speech, the President addresses a group of Republican workers. This speech was given at a time when, as Eisenhower acknowledges, “Republicans haven’t been too popular here for a good many decades.” After the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and Reconstruction, the South was almost entirely Democrat.
Things were so grim in Louisiana for Republicans that the President calls out “a Mayor and three councilmen of a little town somewhere elected in Louisiana.” Eisenhower wonders if he is here, and says, “I would like to see his hand,” before congratulating him.
And he goes on to articulate this very important message:
And I want to make one thing clear, my friends. We don’t have to claim credit for all the deeds, all the talents, all the dedication, all the patriotism, in the Republican Party. Not at all. But we do know that unless there is competition in things like that, that free government can perish. That it is only intelligent, dedicated opposition that keeps people in power right up on their toes.
There is surely one way to keep both parties decent. That is for both parties to be strong, and composed of people who have one thought: the United States of America, and her standing in the world and at home.
Mr. Kennedy Swings Through
On May 4, 1962, very popular in Louisiana, John F. Kennedy became the first President in nearly a decade to visit New Orleans. He made a stop at Uptown’s Nashville Wharf to talk to a crowd of 15,000 about the Port and trade expansion (“Trade or fade!”), before his open-topped motorcade made its way down St. Charles Avenue.
As Camelot drove by, the street was packed with schoolchildren and onlookers of all kinds. Marching bands filled the avenue with music, and one bandmember said that “when the president passed by, our band director was so excited he ran to the street leaving the band to play on its own.”
Author, Errol LaBorde wrote, “For a city used to seeing float-filled Carnival parades and getting beads in return, waiting for the president offered comparatively little in exchange, although it did take time away from being in class and it did provide a brush with history. All in all, not a bad deal.”
Kennedy ended his ride at City Hall where he spoke to a massive crowd (well, he tried to, but there were electronics issues). In his six-minute speech, he accepted an honorary citizenship and key to the city from Mayor Schiro, and then gave a pep talk, advising locals to prepare themselves to take advantage of what would be billions of dollars in federal investment to the Gulf Coast as part of the emerging space race.
Lyndon Johnson is Your President and He’s Here to Help
Back on my President’s Day date, I was on Canal Street, not far from I-10 and Claiborne Avenue, at The Jung Hotel and Residencies. The Jung originally opened in 1907. In the Roaring ‘20s, it boasted the city’s first retractable roof, becoming a focal point for the New Orleans social scene. The hotel reopened recently – and it’s beautiful! – though I had no idea it existed until last week. I learned about it because, in October 1964 – then advertised as the South’s largest convention hotel in the heart of America’s most interesting city – President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a controversial speech here at a $100 per person gala.
As you might remember from Eisenhower’s speech, Louisiana and the rest of the South were solidly Republican. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed in the summer before President Johnson’s visit, would change that. It ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and was considered one of the crowning achievements of the civil rights movement – a movement started when New Orleanian, Homer Plessy, was arrested on a train the law forbade him from riding, and continued when Martin Luther King, Jr. came to New Orleans to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The Civil Rights Act disproportionately affected the South, because the South was disproportionately committing the actions the new law was designed to stop. And many Southerners weren’t happy about it.
Less than one month before the 1964 Presidential Election, Johnson explained his position to New Orleans Democrats:
We have a Constitution and we have a Bill of Rights, and we have the law of the land, and two-thirds of the Democrats in the Senate voted for it and three-fourths of the Republicans. I signed it, and I am going to enforce it, and I am going to observe it, and I think any man that is worthy of the high office of President is going to do the same.
Johnson won the election. But he lost Louisiana – a state in a region that had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats for the century following the Civil War. He might not have realized it then, but that stronghold was now lost.
His next Presidential visit – less than a year later — was an unexpected one. It was September 10, 1965 and Russell Long the son of Huey Long, and an old friend of Johnson’s in the Senate, called and convinced him that Hurricane Betsy – which had made landfall the night before, had caused 81 deaths, and had required the evacuation of 250,000 people – called for a Presidential visit.
“We have really had it down there, and we need your help,” Long told Johnson.
When Johnson suggested sending someone in his place (think about how Coolidge sent Hoover), Long pointed out the political opportunity in front of them:
Now, if you want to go to Louisiana right now— You lost that state last year. You could pick it up just like looking at it right now by going down there as the President. You could elect Hale Boggs and every guy you’d want to elect in the patch of this hurricane just by handling yourself right.
That did the trick. By that night, less than 24 hours after Betsy made landfall, LBJ was in New Orleans. After looking at the flooded Lower Ninth Ward from a bridge over the Industrial Canal, the President went to George Washington High School (which was later renamed “Richard Drew Elementary School,” and is now called Arise Academy). The school is on St. Claude Avenue, a quarter-mile from my home.
Arriving at night, the President went to the high school, which was serving as a de facto shelter for victims, and was met with cries of despair from citizens who had lost their homes. They didn’t know he was there and none of them could see his face in the dark, so – as if sitting around a campfire telling ghost stories — he shined a flashlight on himself and yelled, “This is your President! I’m here to help you!”
A far cry from Coolidge’s response.
But not a very different electoral result. In 1968, George Wallace, running as an Independent advocating for the government-mandated separation of the races, carried Louisiana, as well as four other Deep South states.
Richard Nixon won the election.
Nixon is Almost Killed in New Orleans, But Still Loves Us!
Nixon was scheduled to speak at the Royal Orleans Hotel on St. Louis Street in the French Quarter on August 14, 1970. The Royal Orleans was at the same location as the former Maspero Exchange and St. Louis Exchange Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln had visited more than 100 years earlier. Today it’s called the Omni Royal Hotel, and Michelle and I walked into the lobby, and then to the Rib Room for a pair of cocktails and the debris-covered potato skins.
The day Nixon spoke was the 25th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II, and the President mentioned that. But I was most touched by the words he had for the other political party:
It happens that the entire delegation from the State of Louisiana are members of the Democratic Party. I happen to be in the other party. But I want to say this: that when I look at the record of the members of the delegation from the State of Louisiana, whether they be in the House or the Senate, that when it comes to the great issue of building a strong United States and those policies that will build a just peace, they do not think of themselves as Democrats, but as Americans first, and that is the kind of policy that we need in America today.
And so to all of them who have supported us from this State, we are grateful; to those of you in this State who have given support to us on those great international issues that are bigger than parties, because they are as big as this whole country, our deep appreciation.
I can’t really imagine those words being spoken by a President now, and I don’t just mean the current one. Though, let’s not prop Nixon up too high. Watergate is just around the corner.
Nixon was scheduled to come back to New Orleans a few years later, in August of 1973, and – during a White House briefing – it was announced he would speaking at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) National Convention at a location called Rivergate. Rivergate sounds very similar to Watergate, which by now was now in full swing, and this wasn’t lost on the room – which apparently burst into laughter at the announcement.
Before Rivergate, though, the President’s motorcade would parade down Canal Street, toward the river. This Washington Post article, below, documents there were no less than four assassination plots on Nixon that authorities were investigating in advance of the President’s arrival. These involved the pursuit of a Black Liberation Army cell and suspected wire tappings.
Though, Louis Boasberg, a novelty store owner at the time, admitted, “Everybody in New Orleans thinks their phones are tapped all the time.”
The author of the article writes, “For a city that seems to thrive itself on conspiracies, real or imagined, New Orleans may have outdone itself during the three weeks before President Nixon’s visit here on Aug. 20.”
The President made it safely down Canal Street to Rivergate Hall (a beautiful, unique-looking that stood where Harrah’s Casino currently does) to address the VFW conference and to accept the Peace Award from the Ladies Auxiliary.
Peace, not just in the sense of ending a long and difficult war, but peace in the sense of a whole open world where people with different philosophies can live together, discuss, negotiate, argue, but not engage in war which would be totally destructive of civilization as we know it, at this point. That is our goal.
The Vietnam War waged on.
Short Presidency, Important Visit
President Gerald Ford may not have been in office very long, but – as I wrote earlier this year — his visit to New Orleans was a consequential one. I actually visited the Avron B. Fogelman Arena in Devlin Fieldhouse at Tulane University in January with my buddy, Jeff, for a Tulane University basketball game.
On April 23, 1975, Ford used a page from New Orleans history to show how a new policy he was about to announce would improve our standing abroad, as well as our self-esteem at home:
On January 8, 1815, a monumental American victory was achieved here – the Battle of New Orleans. Louisiana has been a State for less than three years, but outnumbered Americans innovated, outnumbered Americans used the tactics of the frontier, to defeat a veteran British force trained in the strategy of the Napoleonic wars.
We, as a Nation, had suffered humiliation and a measure of defeat in the War of 1812. Our national capital in Washington had been captured and burned. So the illustrious victory in the Battle of New Orleans was a powerful restorative to our national pride.
Yet, the victory at New Orleans actually took place two weeks after the signing of the Armistice in Europe. Thousands died although a peace had been negotiated. The combatants had not gotten the word, yet the epic struggle nevertheless restored America’s pride.
Today, America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam, but it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.
The crowd erupted for Ford like they did for the Tulane University basketball team, and it was inspiring to be reminded that such a monumental event had happened in this unassuming gymnasium many New Orleanians have little idea exists.
Louisiana Hangs in the Balance and Carter Attempts to Tip the Scale
On October 21, 1980, President Jimmy Carter – facing a struggling economy, the Iran Hostage Crisis, severe fuel shortages, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – arrived in Louisiana, his reelection in serious jeopardy just a few weeks before voters would go to the polls to decide between him and Governor Ronald Reagan. Carter’s motorcade made its way to Jackson Square, where he spoke that evening in front of a packed crowd at about 7:20pm.
After the speech, he was driven to the Fairmont Hotel, which – when it was reopened in 2009 after closing during Hurricane Katrina – was renamed the Roosevelt Hotel. Michelle and I walked inside, heads cloudy from our President’s Day bar crawl, but overwhelmed, as I always am, by the lobby’s beauty: the floors, reflecting the light of the extravagant chandeliers above, decorated with ornate designs of blue, yellow, red and cream tiles; lined with stately marble-white columns and green palms in deep, brown pots rising nearly four feet off the floor.
We walked over to the front desk.
“Good evening, sir,” the well-dressed gentleman addressed me from behind his brown, polished station. “How can I help you tonight? Checking in, perhaps?”
“Actually, I’m looking for what used to be called the ‘Bayou Room,’ or what used to be called the ‘Imperial Ballroom.” The man fidgeted and his Adam’s apple jumped when he swallowed hard. I sensed he had no idea what I was talking about. “Any ideas where those might have been? They would have had those names in the 1980s.”
“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t,” he looked to his right for help, but he was alone with two semi-drunk non-patrons looking for a history tour at 9:30pm. “But maybe I can ask someone in the back. May I ask for what purpose you’d like to see these rooms?”
I pulled out my phone to show the man Jimmy Carter’s schedule for the day. “Well, back in – “
“We’re on a Presidential bar crawl for President’s Day, and Jimmy Carter had a fundraiser for the Democratic Party here back in 1980, and we want to see where he was,” Michelle inserted herself into the conversation. She was getting more excited about the night’s objectives the longer it went on.
The gentleman excused himself to the back room to see what he could find out, and then he reemerged a few minutes later. “These rooms were on the second floor,” he seemed to be addressing Michelle directly now, “but have actually since been converted to guest rooms.”
We were disappointed. “Ah, well, thank you,” Michelle said.
She began to walk away, but I jumped in, “Actually, do you know if there is any other evidence of Carter’s stay here?”
The man sighed and excused himself for another few minutes.
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said when he returned, “the hotel was damaged during Hurricane Katrina, and we can’t think of anything from that visit that remains here. I apologize.”
Michelle and I walked over to the Sazerac Bar – which replaced “Main Bar” in 1959 – but the bar was packed, and we had too many other stops to make tonight. Instead we popped over to Domenica, also in the hotel, where we ordered a couple of beers and requested a plate of those complimentary fudgy mini-cookies they have.
We were full and we were drunk. The problem with this food and booze crawl was that we were trying to consume everything an American President had ever eaten or drank throughout the entire history of the Republic…in a single day.
As we popped fudgy cookies, we read through the speech Carter gave upstairs that night. The battle between Republicans and Democrats for Louisiana and the South, that Eisenhower admitted was going poorly for Republicans in the 1950s, but that Lyndon Johnson conceded was shifting with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was still being waged. And we saw this sentiment in Carter’s speech that night:
So, you’ve got a combination in the Democratic Party of sensitivity to human beings, the guarantee of a better life for Americans, the honoring of basic civil rights to give black people and Spanish speaking people and others an equal chance in life and, at the same time, a competence in management and an improvement in the business climate of this Nation, a freeing of the free enterprise system, an expansion of exports, a revitalization of industry, more profits—not under Republicans, but Democrats. The combination of those is extremely important.
I’m not going to stand here tonight and berate my Republican opponent. But all those elements of a better life that the Democrats espouse—I could quote to you verbatim what he has said in condemnation of those programs—social security, minimum wage, Medicare, unemployment compensation, better health care in the future, housing programs, all. But the most important single issue on which he and I stand apart is the control of nuclear weapons. Every single President since Harry Truman, Democrats and Republicans, have worked hard to control nuclear weapons, to have balanced, controlled, confirmable agreements between our two countries, with the goal in mind of lowering the arsenals of nuclear weaponry as a clear prospect for the future.
Governor Reagan has said, “Let’s scrap the nuclear arms control treaty.”
A few weeks later, Reagan squashed Carter in the general election, 489 electoral votes to 49. Every state in the deep south, with the lone exception of Carter’s home state of Georgia, voted Republican.
The Republican Party Arrives in New Orleans
Reagan came to New Orleans, Louisiana now considered a swing state, several times during his Presidency. His first trip was during his inaugural year as President, on September 28, 1981, to speak at the Annual Meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He spoke at the same Rivergate Convention Center that Nixon spoke at a decade earlier.
Reagan was characteristically charismatic:
It’s a privilege to stand here today with those who command the front lines in America’s battle for public order. You have a tough job and a dangerous one. Believe me, I know. I mean no irreverence when I mention that I once played a sheriff on TV who thought he could do the job without a gun. I was dead in the first 27 minutes of the show.
He would visit again in ’82, ’83 and ’86, but his last trip – for the Republican National Convention in 1988 – was the most memorable.
The Convention, held in the Superdome, hosted five past, current, and future Presidents: Ford, Reagan, H.W. Bush, W. Bush, and even Donald Trump.
This nola.com article about the convention has some amazing descriptions of the lengths the city went through to put our best foot forward:
It was a beautiful thing – and it took considerable time and effort to pull that beautiful thing together, not to mention millions of dollars. But, despite a local economy that was still hurting from plummeting energy prices and the subsequent bottoming out of the state’s oil industry, New Orleans did its darndest to put its best foot forward. And, following months of preparation, it showed. Political touches were everywhere around town, with the Crescent City trading its traditional purple, green and gold for red, white and blue.
Flowers in those patriotic colors were planted just off Interstate 10 in Metairie to form a blooming GOP pachyderm. A giant American flag was painted – by Orleans Parish Prison inmates – on the grass in front of the New Orleans Museum of Art. A Dixieland jazz band and a retinue of star-spangled greeters met delegates as they stepped off their planes at New Orleans International Airport, thrusting Hurricanes from Pat O’Brien’s into their waiting hands.
“Not enough restaurants. Food’s terrible. People are really unfriendly. There’s just not enough enthusiasm in this town,” cracked a deadpan bodyguard to Maine Gov. John McKernan upon his arrival – before breaking out laughing. “It’s incredible. What an effort this must have been.”
Reagan flew into the airbase at Belle Chasse and his motorcade rode him over the not-yet-opened twinspan bridge that would later be the Crescent City Connection. He gave his speech on the first night, which at times was more like a stand-up routine. “You know, I always feel at home here in Louisiana because, you know, I’m the fella that talked Tom Jefferson into buying it.”
Vice-President (and presumptive Presidential nominee) Bush arrived for the third day of the Convention and still hadn’t announced who his running mate would be. He arrived at the same Belle Chasse airbase Reagan had, but opted to take a riverboat across the Mississippi to Spanish Plaza.
But running mates and pageantry weren’t the only drama. Prominent local newsman, WWL-TV’s Garland Robinette, was detained by security for trying to sneak a handgun into the convention in his briefcase. (Harkens back to the attempted Nixon assassination in New Orleans years earlier.)
This is also the Convention when Vice-President Bush swore, “Read my lips – no new taxes!” as well as when he promised, famously and eloquently, to “keep America moving forward, always forward—for a better America, for an endless enduring dream and a thousand points of light.”
Also, I just wanted to add this video of George W. Bush at the convention, because it made me laugh a few times.
The Modern Presidency in New Orleans
Many have forgotten – or never knew – that President Bill Clinton’s very first speech outside of Washington was in New Orleans. He carried the State in the 1992 and 1996 elections, the last Democrat to do so in a Presidential election.
A common belief is the moment that sunk President George W. Bush’s presidency was when he flew over – instead of landing in – New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
A little more than two weeks after the storm, though, Bush arrived in a mostly-evacuated city to give a nationally televised speech about the state of New Orleans and the gulf coast, and the steps that had been taken to save it. It gave me goosebumps to see the President address New Orleans refugees, scattered across the country. In the kind of minutia I’m not accustomed to the leader of the free world handling, he announces (and re-announces) a hotline refugees can call to be reunited with their families (travel paid for by the federal government). And, in an empty, eerie Jackson Square, where President Carter delivered raucous speeches to ravenous campaign crowds, George Bush looks into the camera and speaks from the heart. There is, he says, “no way to imagine America without New Orleans.”
Barack Obama learned from the mistakes of his predecessor and visited a recovering New Orleans early and often. During his Presidency, he visited our city no less than four times. President Obama’s first visit was October 15, 2009, when he visited Dr. King Charter School in the Lower Ninth Ward and spoke at the University of New Orleans.
I’ll never forget that day. My friend Tyler, visiting from out of town, and I sat on the side of the street in the Lower Ninth and watched the President’s motorcade zip by. Having done our patriotic duty, we drove to Abita Springs to check out the Abita Brewery. While waiting for our tour, we were surprised there was no coverage of the Obama’s speech on the televisions in the bar.
Why? Well, because there was supposedly a boy, stuck in a balloon, floating thousands of feet above Colorado.
Does anyone here remember Balloon Boy? As you may recall, it was a hoax orchestrated by the young boy’s parents.
That boy, by the way, is now in a heavy metal band with his brothers.
Obama also learned from his predecessor when he went to Dooky Chase’s to eat during his primary battle with Hillary Clinton in 2008. In an unforgiveable snafu, President Obama put hot sauce on the gumbo Leah Chase prepared for him. (Bush never made that mistake.) She reprimanded him for it then and reminded him of it seven years later when he came back in 2015! Forgive and forget?
I ate at Dooky Chase for a previous adventure (Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement have a history here), and – mercifully, because I was stuffed – they are closed on Mondays. I did eat at some other Obama mainstays, though, grabbing poboys earlier that day with my friend, Austin. Obama reportedly ordered the shrimp poboy and the alligator gumbo, while I – citing ideological differences – ordered the oyster poboy and fried pickles.
Because I’m dedicated to these adventures, I also – like Obama — ate fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House. I’d like to point out, that the President had five years between these meals. I had about 45 minutes.
Later that day, on August 27, 2015 – 10 years after Hurricane Katrina – President Obama spoke at the newly-built Andrew P. Sanchez Community Center in the Lower Ninth Ward. He made jokes about not being able to eat the bread pudding at Willie Mae’s (I ate it), but then got emotional when he spoke to the crowd of New Orleanians, no longer the scattered refugees President Bush reached out to by television.
So many had come home. And they were here in front of him that afternoon. President Obama told the crowd, “You inspire me.”
So many Presidents who have visited here over the decades have been inspired by New Orleans.
Thomas Jefferson, recognizing the importance of our port, was inspired to purchase it from the French, as well as 900,000 square miles of what is now the breadbasket of our country. Nixon was inspired by our kindness when he said, “This is a good city and it is a warm and friendly, hospitable city. May it always be that way for a President, or for somebody that was nothing, as I was [when I first visited] 29 years ago.”
Ford was inspired by its balance when he told a crowd at Tulane University, “New Orleans is more, as I see it, than weathered bricks and cast iron balconies. It is a state of mind, a melting pot that represents the very, very best of America’s evolution, an example of retention of a very special culture in a progressive environment of modern change.”
Bush was inspired by the thought of losing her, when he said we “can’t imagine an American without New Orleans.”
And, on that day, Obama was inspired by our resilience. “The people of New Orleans, there is something in you guys that’s just irrepressible,” he said from the lectern. “You guys have a way of making a way out of nowhere. You know the sun comes out after every storm. You’ve got hope.”
Damn right, we do.