Joe Biden once spoke at UNO. I know because I was there. As I recall he spoke in the University Center’s auditorium. The room was maybe half full, which was not bad considering that all that Biden was at the time was the Junior Senator from Delaware. Still, he was young, handsome, moderate and perceived as a rising star. The event was sponsored by the university’s Young Democrats. I am not sure what he spoke about that day – the thoughts of junior senators from Delaware did not matter that much. What counted was his presence. Yet, besides his celebrity status there was also sadness to his story. In 1972 he had lost his wife and daughter in a car accident. Biden personified tragedy and triumph. It was the possibility of more triumph that drew the curious crowd there that afternoon. Some even thought that maybe one day he would be President.
Once every four to eight years thoughts turn to inaugurations and newly anointed Presidents. This is such a week for dusting off the notes about the presidency as it touched New Orleans. The chief executives are a mixed bag but the one at the end had the greatest impact, by far, though he never visited this area. His name still resonates in our everyday life. But that comes later.
Donald Trump visited New Orleans to address the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention. At the time, the government was facing a shut down but the president assured that “no one can turn the government on like I can.”
Trump probably achieved the biggest stage ever for a presidential visit when he and his wife stepped on the Superdome field in January 2020 for the LSU-Clemson National Championship game. Within a few minutes he reached not only a packed stadium, but also a nationwide TV audience. Only a few weeks earlier he was shown singing out the national anthem with the crowd at the LSU-Alabama game. Only Tiger Quarterback Joe Burrow caused more excitement.
Barack Obama spent little time in New Orleans (except for a campaign stop at Tulane and another during the Essence Festival) but this city has always been a plank in the Presidential stage – 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.
When the histories of the Clinton administrations are written it will probably be overlooked that Clinton’s first visit as President outside of Washington was to New Orleans. Hopes and ambitions were still high that day when he was whisked in and out of town to address a convention. (Though perhaps not whisked fast enough. Air Force One’s departure was delayed while the president got an on-board haircut. The next day he would have to explain that he did know that arriving flights could not land as long as a president was on the ground.)
For the Bush family, New Orleans has represented highs and lows in their presidencies. The Dad became his party’s candidate here; the son would be haunted by the after-effects of Katrina. Bush, the elder, is the only President to have received his party’s nomination in New Orleans. And though he would go on to win the presidency, he would be chided for words spoken in the Dome during his acceptance speech: “Read my lips, no new taxes.” Those words would hurt when taxes were raised. Also in attendance at the 1988 Republican convention was 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 with 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 a memorial service 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 down. 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, one who had a major 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 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.
Roosevelt once 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?
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 on 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 presidency. 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 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 that all future presidents can learn from Jefferson. New Orleans is not just a good place to visit, but an extra special place to care for.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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