With today being Presidents’ Day, and the Louisiana Presidential Primary coming soon (March 5), the time is right to talk about Presidents who, by design or not, had a special relationship with the city:
• When the histories of the Bill Clinton administrations are written it will probably be overlooked that his first visit as President outside of Washington was to New Orleans. Hopes and ambitions were still high day when he was whisked in and out of town to address a convention.
New Orleans has always been a plank in the Presidential stage- a city important enough for all modern and some ancient chief executives to have visited- sometimes to dedicate new projects, most often to speak before prestigious meetings.
• Clinton's predecessor, George Bush, is the only President to have received his party’s nomination in New Orleans. Also in attendance at the 1988 Republican convention was President Ronald Reagan, who had made many stops in New Orleans through the years both as a President and earlier as a barnstorming speaker for conservative groups.
• 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 he delivered one of his most important speeches at Tulane University – 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 – which 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’s a whole generation of baby boomers who remember the day John Kennedy came to town. School kids and adults lined St. Charles Avenue to get a glimpse at 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 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 nation’s recovery from a depression and World War II, FDR’s influence was enormous. His Works Progress Administration created 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. The President came to town to be honored at the dedication of Roosevelt Mall in City Park.
While he was here, FDR became part of one of the famous anecdotes in New Orleans political lore. Mayor Robert Maestri, whose rough speech pattern was no match to the eloquent Roosevelt, had been urged to say as little as possible to the President. Yet the mayor could not resist that evening when over dinner at Antoine's he rejoiced over the Oysters Rockefeller and asked the President, “How do ya like dem ersters?” A picture of that dinner, which included a table full of political high rollers, hangs at Antoine's. Seated to the side of Roosevelt, opposite Maestri, was Louisiana Governor Richard Leche. Roosevelt’s Justice department would soon be investigating scandals in Louisiana. The investigation would result in Leche going to prison. How did the governor "like dem ersters?"
• However, Franklin was not the most important Roosevelt, that was Teddy. His determined construction of the Panama Canal was a godsend for the U.S's port cities. The canal made New Orleans a major player in world commerce. Roosevelt was also a major environmentalist and championed federal protection of national lands. Teddy Roosevelt's legacy was so popular, they even named a hotel after him.
• Rutherford B. Hayes was not a major figure, but he was an important one. It was during his administration that Reconstruction ended in 1877. In the spirit of Lincoln, the transition was fairly peaceful. There would be difficult days ahead, but at least the South was able to start rebuilding itself.
• 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 national 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 could not 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 next President- and all future Presidents, can learn from Jefferson. New Orleans is not just a good place o visit, but an extra special place to care for.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.