For the Bush family, New Orleans has represented highs and lows in their presidencies. Dad became his party’s candidate here; son would be haunted by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
When the histories of the Clinton administrations are written, they will probably overlook that his first visit as president outside of Washington was to New Orleans. Hopes and ambitions were still high when he was whisked in and out of town to address a convention.
Barack Obama has so far spent little time in New Orleans (except for campaign stops at Tulane University and during the Essence Festival) but this city has always been a plank in the presidential stage – a own important enough for all modern, and some ancient, chief executives to have visited – sometimes to dedicate new projects but most often to speak before prestigious meetings.
George Bush the elder is the only president to have received his party’s nomination in New Orleans. Also in attendance at the 1988 Republican convention was former president Ronald Reagan, who as a president, and earlier as a barnstorming speaker for conservatism, had made many stops in New Orleans through the years.
Jimmy Carter also made the occasional presidential visit. After his presidency this city became part of his life – at least as a postmark, because his daughter, Amy, lived here for a while.
Gerald Ford’s presidency was brief, but at Tulane University he delivered one of his most important speeches, assuring the nation and the world that the war in Vietnam was over.
At a briefing in Washington, the gathered press laughed when told that the building in New Orleans where Richard Nixon would address a veterans’ convention was called the Rivergate. The word sounded ironically similar to Watergate.
Toward the end of his presidency, Lyndon Johnson, made unpopular by the Vietnam War, mostly limited his appearances to the safe confinement of military bases. After leaving office, his last visit to New Orleans was to attend memorial services at the St. Louis Cathedral for Congressman Hale Boggs.
There is a whole generation of baby boomers who remember the day John F. Kennedy came to town. School kids and adults lined St. Charles Avenue to get a glimpse of the glamorous young president. Kennedy, who was in the city to dedicate the new Nashville Wharf, waved at the crowd from the same open-top limousine that would become part of a tragic episode in American history – an episode triggered by an assassin who had grown up in New Orleans.
As a young military officer, Dwight Eisenhower spent time in central Louisiana overseeing military maneuvers. As president he came to the big city in 1953 to help celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase.
Of all the presidential visitors, the one who would have the biggest impact on the city, and the nation, was Franklin Roosevelt. Serving nearly four terms during a span that included the recovery from a depression and World War II, FDR’s influence was enormous. His Works Progress Administration crated jobs to help the nation bounce back from economic hard times. WPA projects appeared around town, including many of the stylish buildings and bridges seen in City Park. He also once came to town to be honored at the dedication of Roosevelt Mall in City Park.
Though transportation was more difficult for earlier presidents, many would at least whistle stop through town. For Abraham Lincoln, transit, especially to the South, was impossible during his administration, but he knew New Orleans. As a young man he had floated down river on a raft carrying produce to the city.
Though officially from Virginia, Zachary Taylor is the only president to have actually lived in Louisiana, spending time in a plantation in the vicinity of Baton Rouge.
If there was one presidency that was made because of New Orleans it was Andrew Jackson’s. The general’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans catapulted him to nation prominence just as Eisenhower’s success in Europe would do over a century later. The shift of the American presidency from the East Coast elite to back woods populism began on the battlefields at Chalmette.
Just as New Orleans made Jackson, Thomas Jefferson made New Orleans. The scholarly third president had the geopolitical-insight to write of the city that, “there is on the globe one spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy.” Jefferson understood that the fledgling country couldn’t grow as long as another nation controlled the port near the mouth of the continent’s most important river.
The president allowed for negotiations to buy the city from France and was surprised when the entire Louisiana territory, reaching the Canadian border, was thrown into the package. After Jefferson, New Orleans was no longer just a Creole colony but an American city.
We hope the new president, and all future presidents, can learn from Jefferson. New Orleans isn’t just a good place to visit – it’s an extra special place to care for.